Discovering Tesseracts

I still haven’t seen Interstellar yet, but here’s a great interview with Kip Thorne about the movie-making process and what he thinks of the final product. (For a very different view, see Phil Plait [update: now partly recanted].)

tesseract One of the things Kip talks about is that the film refers to the concept of a tesseract, which he thought was fun. A tesseract is a four-dimensional version of a cube; you can’t draw it faithfully in two dimensions, but with a little imagination you can get the idea from the picture on the right. Kip mentions that he first heard of the concept of a tesseract in George Gamow’s classic book One, Two, Three… Infinity. Which made me feel momentarily proud, because I remember reading about it there, too — and only later did I find out that many (presumably less sophisticated) people heard of it in Madeleine L’Engle’s equally classic book, A Wrinkle in Time.

But then I caught myself, because (1) it’s stupid to think that reading about something for the first time in a science book rather than a science fantasy is anything to be proud of, and (2) in reality I suspect I first heard about it in Robert Heinlein’s (classic!) short story, “–And He Built a Crooked House.” Which is just as fantastical as L’Engle’s book.

So — where did you first hear the word “tesseract”? A great excuse for a poll! Feel free to elaborate in the comments.

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
Start date 11-06-2014 17:50:13
End date 31-12-2014 23:59:59
Poll Results:
Where did you first discover the word "tesseract"?
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35 Responses to Discovering Tesseracts

  1. AJ Staunton says:

    I first heard of a tesseract while watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos! See:

  2. Valentina says:

    YES! me too..and it was Amazing with the lamp and the projection he made trying to convey the message…great Carl Sagan!

  3. James Marlow says:

    E gads, I don’t remember, but it had to be about 50 years ago for me; I even built a model out of soldered wire just to make the idea solid in my mind.

  4. Brady Kelly says:

    I was actually doing some random surfing on the topic of > 3 dimensional geometry, like I was guided right there.

  5. Bernardo Flood says:

    Watching Carl Sagan´s Cosmos. In 1981.

  6. alan says:

    Honestly cant remember but have seen that pic many times before could have been Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace

  7. Patrik says:

    I think that (1) is incorrect for reasons such as (a); if you read something firsthand in a sciencebook- rather than a fantasy, the time spent, in my point of view, was dedicated for intended knowledge production rather than amusement which in general benefits human progression

  8. Tony Zito says:

    In “A Wrinkle in Time”. Scariest book I read until I got to “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. (No tesseracts there!) I was shocked in Jr. High to discover that a tesseract is not something Madeleine L’Engle just made up – that seemed like cheating somehow to me at the time.

  9. Ray Gedaly says:

    First introduced to the term in “A Wrinkle in Time,” but Heinlein’s “Crooked House” story is a SF favorite of mine.

    I haven’t found any visualization software that demonstrates four dimensional objects such as hypercubes or hyperspheres. I think someone with programming skills could make good money with such a visualization program, for education, plotting of charts, and especially gaming.

  10. Matt McIrvin says:

    L’Engle doesn’t actually use the term in the standard sense, does she? If I recall correctly, she uses it to mean something much more like a wormhole than a hypercube.

  11. John Lopez says:

    Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions was the first time I was exposed to the concept of a hypercube/tesseract. I’m not sure which term they used.

  12. Matt McIrvin says:

    …Reading “…And He Built A Crooked House” I was always bothered by the fact that Heinlein cheats on the hypercubic geometry. The rooms that become the faces of the hypercube are connected to the correct other rooms, but not with the correct orientations. People should have been constantly falling from the ceiling or ending up the wrong way up.

  13. Ray Gedaly says:

    On a sad note, Interstellar made me want to contact an old friend who introduced me to Kaluza-Klein Theory long ago. But I learned my friend, Kevin Hammon, a physicist at North Carolina State, died just last year; and thus didn’t get to see a blockbuster movie based on his area of research.

  14. Pingback: Quick 4-dimensional visualization | Pretty Blue Glow

  15. Rob says:

    Regarding Interstellar, many of Phil Plait’s criticisms of the science of the movie seem rooted in him misunderstanding the GR; in particular, the fact that the BH is supermassive (so a planet could in principle survive the tidal gravity while still being strongly time dilated) and nearly maximally spinning (so the innermost stable circular orbit is well inside where it would be for a Schwarzschild hole). I’ll be interested to see how your views may differ from his.

  16. John Owen says:

    I first came across ‘tesserect’ – it was the name of a computer store. It’s been around for ages. It’s been around ~30 years

    still going strong

  17. Tim says:

    I used to be quite fascinated by the occult, and first came across the word “tesseract” in work by Ebony Anpu; see here. I’m not sure about now, but for a while there was quite a lot of interest in the Tesseract Ritual by people connected to various chaos magick groups.

  18. Mateo says:

    Cube 2: Hypercube

    I’m surprised it’s not in the options…

  19. FrankL says:

    The thing that bothers me is that I can’t really see a tesseract, even in my mind, only a projection of it onto 3-space. That book “Flatland…” mentioned by John Lopez is really an eye opener. Can a person living in a 2-dimensional space ever really see a cube? Actually we don’t see a cube either, we see two projections of a cube, one on each 2-dimensional retina of our eyes, and our brain processes the two to give us a mental image of a cube. But we cannot process projections of a tesseract onto 3-space to get an equivalent mental image of a tesseract.
    Evolution gave us the ability to form mental images of 3-dimensional objects, because it was practically mandatory for survival, but it has given us no ability to form equivalent mental images of 4-dimensional objects because its, well, not cost-effective. It’s not a natural limitation. If our brain is like a computer, there’s no reason it could not be implemented in Flatland. In other words, a Flatlander sees a square by processing two 1-D retinal images, but cannot see a cube because it’s not evolutionarily cost effective, but a Flatlander could be genetically engineered to have a brain that could form a mental image of a cube. Likewise, humans could be genetically engineered to have a brain that could form a mental image of a tesseract. But the human brain is pretty flexible. I wonder, with a LOT of training, if one could ever form a mental image of a tesseract, in the same sense that we do a cube?
    P.S. see for a video of a tesseract rotating about a plane.

  20. Noble says:

    I first heard of a tesseract reading this post! Guess I’ve led a sheltered life.

  21. Tom S says:

    My first encounter with the concept was in Gamow’s book. But I don’t think the book contains the word “tesseract”. I could be mistaken, of course.

    Gamow’s book was a Christmas present from my dad in the early 60’s. What a delightful, mind-bending book!

  22. Anton Szautner says:

    First came across the concept in Gamow’s ‘One, Two, Three…Infinity”, as a kid in the mid-sixties. (He draws it, as I recall). I feel old.

  23. Ryan G says:

    I suspect I first heard the word from A Wrinkle in Time, which I probably read when I was 8. I don’t think I was exposed to anything else mentioned in this thread before then.

    But my first understanding of the concept… that came from Superman.

  24. pszNicx says:

    I may have heard it earlier but I vaguely remember a book on higher geometries that I think mentioned it. Wish I could remember the title though.
    The clearest early memory of hypercubes I have though is from Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace.

  25. Latverian Diplomat says:

    @Tom S.

    According to Amazon book search, you are correct. Gamow seems to use the term “supercube” instead.