In true Cartesian fashion I woke up slowly this morning, and while I tossed and turned in bed I thought more about the Banach-Tarkski paradox, having just written about it last night. In yesterday’s A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians, I asked, “Can we pursue this extraction of volume in something like a process of transfinite recursion, arriving at some geometrical equivalent of ε0?” The extraction in question is that of taking one mathematical sphere out of another mathematical sphere, and both being equal to the original — the paradox that was proved by Banach and Tarski. I see no reason why this process cannot be iterated, and if it can be iterated it can be iterated to infinity, and if iterated to infinity we should finish with an infinite number of mathematical spheres that would fill an infinite quantity of mathematical space.

All of this is as odd and as counter-intuitive as many of the theorems of set theory when we first learn them, but one gets accustomed to the strangeness after a time, and if one spends enough time engaged with these ideas one probably develops new intuitions, set theoretical intuitions, that stand one in better stead in regard to the strange world of the transfinite than the intuitions that one had to abandon.

In any case, it occurred to be this morning that, since decompositions of a sphere in order to reassemble two spheres from one original does not consist of discrete “parts” as we usually understand them, but of sets of points, and these sets of points would constitute something that did not fully fill the space that they inhabit, and for this reason we could speak of them as possessing fractal dimension. On fractal dimension, the Wikipedia entry says this of the Koch curve:

“…the length of the curve between any two points on the Koch Snowflake is infinite. No small piece of it is line-like, but neither is it like a piece of the plane or any other. It could be said that it is too big to be thought of as a one-dimensional object, but too thin to be a two-dimensional object, leading to the speculation that its dimension might best be described in a sense by a number between one and two. This is just one simple way of imagining the idea of fractal dimension.”

The first space filling-curve discovered by Giuseppe Peano (the same Peano that formulated influential axioms of arithmetic, though the axioms seem to ultimately derive from Dedekind) already demonstrated a way in which a line, ordinarily considered one dimensional, can be two dimensional — or, if you prefer to take the opposite perspective, that a plane, ordinarily considered to be two dimensional, can be decomposed into a one dimensional line. A fractal like the Koch curve fills two dimensional space to a certain extent, but not completely like Peano’s space-filling curve, and its fractal dimension is calculated as 1.26.

Hilbert's version of a space filling curve.

The Koch curve is a line that is more than a line, and it can only be constructed in two dimensions. It is easy to dream up similar fractals based on two dimensional surfaces. For example, we could take a cube and construct a cube on each side, and construct a cube on each side of these cubes, and so on. We could do the same thing with bumps raised on the surface of a sphere. Right now, we are only thinking of in terms of surfaces. The six planes of a cube enclose a volume, so we can think of it either as a two dimensional surface or as a three dimensional body. In so far as we think of the cube only as a surface, it is a two dimensional surface that can only be constructed in three dimensions. (And the cube or sphere constructions can go terribly wrong also, as if we make the iterations too large they will run into each other. Still, the appropriate construction will yield a fractal.)

This process suggests that we might construct a fractal from three dimensional bodies, but to do so we would have to do this in four dimensions. In this case, the fractal dimension of a three dimensional fractal constructed in four dimensional space would be 3.n, depending upon how much four dimensional space was filled by this fractal “body.” (And I hope you will understand why I put “body” in scare quotes.)

I certainly can’t visualize a four dimensional fractal. In fact, “visualize” is probably the wrong term, because our visualization capacity locates objects in three dimensional space. It would be better to say that I cannot conceive of a four dimensional fractal, except that I can entertain the idea, and this is a form of conception. What I mean, of course, is a form of concrete conception not tied to three dimensional visualization. I suspect that those who have spent a lifetime working with such things may approach an adequate conception of four dimensional objects, but this is the rare exception among human minds.

Just as we must overcome the counter-intuitive feeling of the ideas of set theory in order to get to the point where we are conceptually comfortable with it, so too we would need to transcend our geometrical intuitions in order to adequately conceptualize four dimensional objects (which mathematicians call 4-manifolds). I do not say that it is impossible, but it is probably very unusual. This represents an order of thinking against the grain that will stand as a permanent aspiration for those of us who will never fully attain it. Intellectual intuition, like dimensionality, consists of levels, and even if we do not fully attain to a given level of intuition, if we glimpse it after a fashion we might express our grasp as a decimal fraction of the whole.

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A seasonally-appropriate illustration of the Banach-Tarski paradox.

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Fractals and Geometrical Intuition

1. Benoît Mandelbrot, R.I.P.

2. A Question for Philosophically Inclined Mathematicians

3. Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox

4. A visceral feeling for epsilon zero

5. Adventures in Geometrical Intuition

6. A Note on Fractals and Banach-Tarski Extraction

7. Geometrical Intuition and Epistemic Space

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Grand Strategy Annex

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