A History of Space from Dante to the Internet

Robert B. Wertheim

Virago, London, 1999.

Though much of the theological discussions will be tiresome for non-Christians, there is much of interest in this book, including a chapter on perspective in painting, and a useful account of hyperspace theories in contemporary physics. On the whole, though, it is an odd assortment of notions, and numerous problems arise.

One of these crops up in the early pages, where Wertheim conjures up the tired old demon of the reductionist who has supposedly never acknowedged relationships between objects, just the objects themselves.

"No matter how often the reductionists insist that we are nothing but atoms and genes, there is clearly more to us than this. 'I think therefore I am', Descartes declared, and whether we modifiy 'think' to 'feel', or 'suffer', or 'love', what remains is the indissoluble 'I', and deal with it we must. The failure of modern science to incorporate this immaterial 'I' - this 'self', this 'mind', this 'spirit', this 'soul' - into its world picture is one of the premier pathologies of modern Western culture, and sadly, one reason many people are turning away from science." (p.38)

Is there any need to get worked up into a theological lather about the existence of minds and spirits? An example of a theory that does not assume that there is such a "thing" as a mind is given by Priest (Theories of the Mind, 1991):

"The relation between thinking and the brain is this: thinking is the mental activity of the brain. Crucially, there is no interface problem between things and their activities. There is no ontological or metaphysical problem about what the relation is between something and what it does."

Priest goes on to explain that this theory is neither dualist, nor idealist, nor materialist:

"The empiricist theory of the mind is the identification of the brain with that which engages in the activity of thinking. This identification is itself empirical."

Perhaps "one of the premier pathologies of modern Western culture" is the tedious preoccupation with ancient ideas and problems, when there are more fruitful ways of looking at things.

At various points in the book, Wertheim makes portentous announcements, as if some rare insight is being revealed:

"Let me stress this point: Just because something is not material does not mean it is unreal, as the oft-cited distinction between 'cyberspace' and 'real space' implies." (p.229)

Here's another startling revelation:

"Commentator N. Katherine Hayles has noted... that one cannot experience cyberspace at all except through the physical senses of the body." (p.228)

Some of these excited claims are undercut by infelicitous contrasts:

"In a very profound sense, this new digital space is 'beyond' the space that physics describes, for the cyber-realm is not made up of particles and forces, but of bits and bytes. [...] In particular, this new space is not contained within physicists' hyperspace complex. No matter how many dimensions hyperspace physicists add into their equations, cyberspace will remain 'outside' them all." (p.226)

A byte is just eight bits, so that saying "bits and bytes" is like saying "inches and yards", rather than, say, "bricks and mortar". The other oddity is that multidimensional spaces are a commonplace in mathematics, which makes physicists' supposed inability to contain such spaces a rather empty concern.

Stirred in with the erudite passages on Dante and hyperspace are the customary postmodern references to pop culture:

"We who grew up with Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan's Island, and Get Smart - are we not already participating in a vast 'consensual hallucination'? One that, as in Bewitched, is imbued with magical qualities." (p.241)

The phrase Get real! springs to mind.

The science fiction idea that humans may be immortally preserved as data is a source of great excitement to the author. Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek is listed in the notes to the book, yet Wertheim fails to mention the snags outlined there about encoding human data.

Finally, some orthographical nit-picking. This is not an American book, so fiber is not correct, and certainly the persistent blunder of writing a phenomena or a millennia is shocking. Wertheim even manages an inadvertent pun by using a word for memory store instead of cachet:

"a prestigious '.edu' address carries considerably more cache online" (p.285)

How pedantic to point all this out. Perhaps it doesn't matter that Virago publish a book which makes historian Frances Yates into Francis (p.276)?



Paul Taylor 2001