Flatterland by Ian Stewart

Book Stats

  • Flatterland
  • Ian Stewart
  • Basic Books
  • Released April 18th 2002
  • 4 Stars

Summary:

In a sequel of sorts to Edwin Abbot’s Flatland, A-square’s great great granddaughter, Victoria goes on an interdimensional adventure to every corner of the math world. Guided by a space-hopper who has interdimensional traveling capabilities, Victoria experience worlds from three dimensions to an infinite amount of dimensions and everything in between. Along the way, she meets a myriad of strange inhabitants that demonstrate the properties of the strange surfaces and spaces she visits.

Review:

I had this one week a while back where I was super into math and science related books and that’s how I stumbled upon Flatterland. I’ve read some of Stewart’s other books and I appreciated how he could make complex math topics more accessible. Flatterland is no different. I’m good at picking up math concepts pretty quickly but some of the topics in this book had me confused the first time I read about them. However, when I read about them in Flatterland, they made much more sense. This, above all, is Stewart’s forte: the ability to make higher math interesting and easy to understand.

Flatterland, like the name suggests, is set in the same world as Edwin Abbot’s Flatland, albeit a century later. We are taken on a tour of the mathverse and all of it’s dimensions with the main character, Victoria-line, who happens to be the great great granddaughter of A-square, the main character of flatland, and a creature called the space-hopper.

Sorry my wordpress skills are kind of ratchet… if someone knows how to create spoiler alerts like in goodreads (<spoiler> that thing), please comment or email me (see contact page) on how to do it. For now, please just highlight the text below if you want to see it.

The mind whirling journey starts when Victoria, affectionately called Vikki, discovers A-square’s book about multidimensional theory and decodes a secret message within that allows her to summon a creature from multidimensions, in this case the space-hopper.

The space-hopper has the ability to travel across all of mathverse without any difficulty and lends a hand to Vikki in helping her to see other worlds as well.

I liked how the book was organized like a tour of a safari or a museum and each chapter was another exhibit. This made Flatterland easy to read while still being incredibly informative. But by the 8th chapter or so, the format was starting to feel repetitive since we were just kind of hopping from world to world. I liked that in each world, the characters we met had so much personality and often times had real world counterparts, e.g. Space girls/Spice Girls, the doughmouse and company/doormouse and mad hatter from Alice in wonderland. However, I didn’t like how Vikki loses her sense of 2-dimensionality. By that I mean that for the first couple of chapters she has a lot of difficulty comprehending phenomenon unique to higher dimensions and the space-hopper explains it accordingly, but by the end she doesn’t really have any more comprehension issues and I couldn’t even tell that she was from flatland anymore… I’m not exactly sure if this is intentional, i.e. it is showing that she is a quick learner, or if it is just laziness on Stewart’s part not wanting to explain things so mundane to us but that wouldn’t be to Vikki. This doesn’t really change the comprehensibility of the math since we already understand the things about three dimensions.

And even though we get a very large sampling of mathematical topics, there is a nice flow from chapter to chapter where the current dimension can describe something that couldn’t be described by the last one or was a step up, e.g. upgrading from three dimensions to n dimensions. All of the basic info about the topic in each chapter is there and it was nice that there were “sample problems” that space-hopper would ask and then Vikki would answer, e.g. determining the dimension of a new fractal or determining the signs of living on a torus. And even if I had to reread the section to answer the question, it wasn’t because Stewart’s writing was unclear; it was always that I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept. The explanations start out succinct in the first couple of chapters but by the time we get to  relativity and whatnot, the chapters start to feel a bit endless and space-hopper’s appeal starts to wear off. Still, on the whole the math is nicely incorporated into the story and easily understood.

Okay, so about Flatterland’s story (not the math part): it could have used some help. Like why doesn’t her family freak out more about her disappearing? Seriously, your daughter just poofed and was gone and you remain adamant in the belief that she somehow ran away by oh I don’t know punching a hole in the wall? And even at the end, her parents aren’t as emotional as I expected they would be. On the other hand though, there was a nice emphasis on gender equality; it felt forced and way too insistent at times but I get that Stewart was making a point that we have changed since the day when Flatland was published (though even in Flatland, the sexism was being ridiculed).

Overall, all of my complaints about this book basically boil down to the fact that it seems too long and in the final chapters, I just want to speed it up and get to the ending already. However, if you are interested in learning more about dimensionality in math and can stay hooked on the book till the end, I’m sure this will be an amazing read.

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