- Fin-de-Siècle 4th Dimension
WHEN ALBERT EINSTEIN confirmed for physics the fourth dimension of space-time in 1919, he vindicated an idea that had served as a powerful metaphor for writers since the 1870s. The fourth dimension, a hypothetical space that exists beyond length, area, and volume and that is usually figured as time, has been the inspiration for countless science fictions and mathematical thought experiments in the past 150 years. This concept had tremendous impact on nineteenth-century Anglo-American novelists Henry James, Olive Schreiner, and H. G. Wells as well as intellectuals Karl Pearson, Havelock Ellis, and William James. Building on studies of space and the fourth dimension by Linda Dalrymple Henderson and Alice Jenkins, in addition to research focused on epistemology by One Culture theorists including Gillian Beer, George Levine, and Jonathan Smith, Before Einstein examines the scientific and cultural significance of the spatial fourth dimension as part of the history of modernism.
Elizabeth Throesch, an Assistant Professor at the Community College of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, has written a thought provoking and well-researched book that will interest historians of science, mathematics, and psychology as much as literary and cultural studies scholars. Researchers wrestling with questions concerning whether nineteenth-century thinkers believed that the fourth dimension is an actual space or an epistemological tool and metaphor whose use is constrained to abstractions will take particular pleasure in reading Before Einstein. Throesch's interdisciplinary cultural history of this speculative space focuses on the little-studied mathematician and writer Charles Howard Hinton (1853–1907). In addition to inventing the word "tesseract" and formulating his influential hyperspace philosophy, which popularized the fourth dimension and propounded [End Page 396] the ontological idea "there was nothing outside of space perception," Charles's social relationships and political beliefs deepen the significance of his ideas about mathematics. From his eccentric father James Hinton (1822–1875), an aural surgeon accused of polygamy and member of the radical Men and Women's Club and socialist Fellowship of the New Life, to Charles's own conviction for bigamy, a scandal which precipitated in his leaving England for Japan and then the United States, Throesch makes Hinton's biography central to her claims about the fourth dimension.
This lively and daring book connects several socio-historical threads in late-nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture. Most importantly, how did the idea of the fourth dimension pass from the field of analytical geometry to that of fiction, psychology, and aesthetics? To address this question Throesch explains that after 1870 the fourth dimension was plucked from geometry to serve as an allegorical device because the conditions and technologies of modernity made it especially resonant.
Before Einstein is divided into two sections, each containing three chapters. While the first half, "Reading the Fourth Dimension," focuses particularly on the history of this spatial idea and Hinton's writings and biography; the second, "Reading Through the Fourth Dimension," examines how this idea impacted psychologist William James and novelists Wells and James. This bipartite emphasis permits Throesch's monograph to more completely address the question of how an idea from mathematics interwove with culture in the decades preceding the popularization of Einstein's theory of special relativity. Chapter one historicizes the fourth dimension from its beginnings in the field of mathematics during the tumultuous rise of non-Euclidian and n-dimensional geometries. These debates produced numerous flatland narratives and thought experiments, which would prove as productive to novelists as to mathematicians and philosophers. Chapter two focuses on the first series of Hinton's Scientific Romances (1884–1886): a collection of fictions and manuals originally published as pamphlets that reflect on the fourth dimension. By close reading these texts Throesch highlights the epistemological consequences of Hinton's eclectic book for imagining the fourth dimension. Chapter three concerns several fictions from the second series of Scientific Romances (1896). Throesch examines two novellas in particular to illustrate intersections between [End Page 397] the fourth dimension and Hinton's social ideas about gender, politics, and free will. Hinton's Stella...