‘Experience informs intuition’

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Experience informs intuition. But it does more than that: Experience sets the frame within which we analyze and interpret what we perceive.

You would no doubt expect, for instance, that the “wild child” raised by a pack of wolves would interpret the world from a perspective that differs substantially from your own. Even less extreme comparisons, such as those between people raised in very different cultural traditions, serve to underscore the degree to which our experiences determine our interpretive mindset.

Yet there are certain things that we all experience. And it is often the beliefs and expectations that follow from these universal experiences that can be the hardest to identify and the most difficult to challenge. A simple but profound example is the following. If you were to get up from reading this book, you could move in three independent directions—that is, through three independent, spatial dimensions. Absolutely any path you follow—regardless of how complicated—results from some combination of motion through what we might call the “left-right dimension,” the “back-forth dimension,” and the “up-down dimension.” Every time you take a step you implicitly make three separate choices that determine how you move through these three dimensions.

An equivalent statement, as encountered in our discussion of special relativity, is that any location in the universe can be fully specified by giving three pieces of data: where it is relative to these three spatial dimensions. In familiar language, you can specify a city address, say, by giving a street (location in the “left-right dimension”), a cross street or an avenue (location in the “back-forth dimension”), and a floor number (location in the “up-down dimension”). And from a more modern perspective, we have seen that Einstein’s work encourages us to think about time as another dimension (the “future-past dimension”), giving us a total of four dimensions (three space dimensions and one time dimension). You specify events in the universe by telling where and when they occur.

This feature of the universe is so basic, so consistent, and so thoroughly pervasive that it really does seem beyond questioning. In 1919, however, a little-known Polish mathematician named Theodor Kaluza from the University of Königsberg had the temerity to challenge the obvious—he suggested that the universe might not actually have three spatial dimensions; it might have more.

Sometimes silly-sounding suggestions are plain silly. Sometimes they rock the foundations of physics. Although it took quite some time to percolate, Kaluza’s suggestion has revolutionized our formulation of physical law. We are still feeling the aftershocks of his astonishingly prescient insight.”

Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory)

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