Stuff Inside

Posted: August 19, 2008 in Philosophy, Science

I remember having my mind blown as a teenager by Edwin Abbott Abbott’s book Flatland, which can be read here at Google books since it’s no longer protected by copyright. The book explores the limits of perception faced by an inhabitant of 2-dimensional space, known as Flatland, when visited by a 3-dimensional being, a sphere. It was exciting to think outside the box (pun intended) and extrapolate the possibility of multiple dimensions beyond human perceptual apparatuses. Similarly, it was curious to imagine what it would be like to artificially limit perception from spaceland (normal 3D space) to flatland (a plane in 2D) to lineland (1D) to pointland (0D). This abstract reasoning is well within the power of ordinary folks and doesn’t require specialized training in geometry.

That there exist hidden dimensions (or layers or depth) is a fascinating idea, and it applies and extends equally well to all manner of things, both mundane and exotic. Indeed, it occurred to me that the profundity present within much of human experience often lies beyond our perceptual ability, whereas in other cases we lack sensitivity, training, or focus to appreciate what we experience, instead skimming along the surface. In short, there is an awful lot of stuff inside that is lost on us.

Inside Entertainments

Typical entertainments, let’s say movies and music, are arguably enjoyed by the masses at a very limited level of understanding. Although one need not be a film critic with a comprehensive knowledge of the history of cinema to appreciate what a film has to offer, the wherewithal a critic brings to bear on film viewing has the power to both enhance and (ironically) ruin a movie experience. For example, a viewer with more refined perception will understand textual citations and stylistic influences much better but may be impatient with formulaic or flat-footed filmmaking. Similarly, a trained musician perceives music on a variety of levels simultaneously, whereas the general public processes the same experience somewhat (or even a lot) more superficially. None of this means that the great unwashed masses aren’t well entertained, but it’s symptomatic that as one’s level of sensitivity is enhanced through a combination of study, exposure, and careful contemplation, one appreciates more of the filmmaker’s and musician’s intent and skill and one’s taste tends toward more subtle and well-crafted embodiments — character-driven cinema vs. shoot-’em-up movies or classical music and jazz vs. pop and rock.

Inside Wine

A sharp palate is reputed to be able to discern a surprising number of flavors within a simple sip of wine. How does a vintner account for so many flavors crammed into one wine? Or is it merely an illusion? Here’s a description of one of my favorite bottles:

2004 Château Puynormond Bordeaux: The robe is deep and intense. On the nose, there are fruity notes of blackcurrant and strawberry that are appealing rather than exuberant. This wine is round on the palate with very ripe fruit offering a delicious range of strawberry juice, fresh tannins, and blackcurrant.

Here is another review of the same vintage:

2004 Château Puynormond Bordeaux: This is a hearty wine that redefines our perceptions of Merlot. Aromas of mixed berries and earth lets you know this is a wine to take seriously. Full flavors of oak and dark fruit do not disappoint.

If these two reviews are based on the same wine, it’s difficult to tell. To the typical beer swiller, as opposed to oenophiles, descriptions of wines read like empty sales blather intended to buffalo naifs into paying for empty prestige. If there are truly a distinct entry, blossom, and finish to a gulp of wine, it’s pretty well hidden from most of us (me included), who inevitably resort to the old saw “I know what I like” rather than defer to an expert’s subtle appreciation — at least after the expert leaves the table. To the average diner, a $10 bottle is perfectly acceptable and a $125 bottle offers no particular extra enjoyment. 

Inside Atoms

The classic case of finding all sort of things crammed inside something previously believed irreducible is particle physics. For an overview, see The Particle Adventure. For a long time, the molecule was believed to be the smallest coherent bit of matter. But then molecules were broken into atoms (or elements) found in the Periodic Table of Elements. When the atom was in turn cracked, it was found to contain protons, neutrons, and electrons. And inside those are some 200+ more particles, some proven, some inferred, and some hypothesized, that include in no particular order leptons, quarks, hadrons, photons, gluons, neutrinos, muons, pions, bosons, Higgs bosons, fermions, baryons, mesons, tachyons, gravitons, saxions, branons, etc. All these together function as the so-called Standard Model, which is a theory that describes three of the four known fundamental interactions among the elementary particles that make up all matter. (Gravitation remains elusive.)

To the layperson, there is something vaguely shameful about particle physicists playing around with subatomic matter but still unable to describe with anything approaching completeness the properties and interactions of all this stuff. Good luck, too, trying to tease a simple answer out of this quagmire. For instance, does every atom contain all this stuff, or do some subatomic particles correspond to specific elements? I note with some satisfaction that physicists have compounded this complexity with String Theory, which postulates that particles may actually be vibrating strands of energy, or strings, that oscillate in eleven dimensions, seven of which are flatly unknowable to us. (And it gets even worse with M Theory.) Edwin Abbott would be proud.

Inside Human Emotion

Perhaps the most impenetrable fortress of hidden depths is the human heart, specifically those of the male. Many male emotional patterns have been distilled as clichés, such as Male Answer Syndrome, machismo, Fragile Male Ego, the Type-A personality, etc. Despite plenty of surface-level emotion (mostly anger and aggression), the typical complaint levied on men is that they don’t communicate their feelings well, which is to say, like women. But roiling beneath that repressed lid is a veritable cauldron of emotional life, often hidden from the man himself. Emotions are often experienced without their being part of conscious awareness. Such undercurrents generally find expression in behavior, and history is replete with examples of dark souls externalizing their suffering and ebullient souls demonstrating remarkable creativity. Sometimes these expressions are works of art, other times they’re persecutions of one sort or another. But there is little mistaking the range and depth available in emotional life.

If I’ve committed the cardinal sin of overlooking the contributions of the fairer sex, that’s primarly because thousands of years of history have been patriarchal, which records deeds of men far more lastingly than those of women. Secondarily, I’m totally unqualified to opine on female emotion, which is an altogether different sort of impenetrable fortress for most men.

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