Should I sublimate to another dimension? What does that even mean? Are there other dimensions? What about wormholes? And what if, instead of trying to use physics to get away from it all, you actually faced your fears? Featuring physics and metaphysics wisdom from Dr. Katie Mack, author of The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking) and an original poem by Jayne A. Quan, a transmasculine, non-binary writer living in Los Angeles (follow them on Twitter & Instagram).
Advice For And From The Future is written, edited and performed by Rose Eveleth. The theme music is by Also, Also, Also. The logo is by Frank Okay. Additional music this episode provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
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transcript by Emily White at The Wordary
Advice For And From The Future
S1E10: “Should I Sublimate to Another Dimension?”
[store bell jingle]
[Advice For and from the Future theme kicks in: low, long synths under a steady, crunchy rhythm]
Hi again. Welcome back. I’m glad you could join us. I know that our door is a little bit hard to find, nestled between the satellite supply store and the AI confessional booth, but here you are. Got a question about tomorrow? Well, you are in the right place. Welcome to your friendly neighborhood futurology shop, where you can get the answers to tomorrow’s questions, today. On today’s trip to and from the future, we are considering questions of sublimation and extra dimensions. And to walk us through both physics and metaphysics, I called up Dr. Katie Mack, an astrophysicist and the author of The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking).
[theme fades out]
ROSE (on call):
Katie, thank you for coming on the show.
DR. KATIE MACK:
Thank you for having me.
Are you ready to give some advice?
I will do my best.
(laughs) Do you like advice columns? Or do you find them…
I do. I enjoy them a lot, and I do enjoy giving advice. Although I do not trust my own judgment in any context.
It’s good to give advice, but I don’t want to ever have to take advice. That’s how I feel, where I’m like, “I’ll do what I want!”
Right. I will give advice to other people. I will not give myself good advice or accept good advice from other people, I think is the usual pattern.
I think that’s normal. I think that’s a normal thing. (laughs)
I’m going to play this question for you. I’m going to do it via sharing my screen, so it should just come through your headphones. Let’s see if I can…
Hi, Rose. I have a question for Advice For and From the Future. I want to know if I should sublimate into a higher dimension. I think that’s the term for it, sublimate. Like, you know, there’s other, higher dimensions maybe, I guess, they say. And you know, what would that be like? And would that kill me? Or would that be super awesome? Let me know from the future. Thank you, bye.
Okay. Where should we begin?
Um, I feel like we should begin with defining the term dimension.
I was going to ask, are there in fact other dimensions?
Okay, buckle up. Do a few neck rolls. Crack your knuckles if you need to, because you’re about to get about seven minutes of straight physics, just injected directly into your veins here. So get a pen and paper if you want, or if you’re like me, just let it wash over you like a complicated but beautiful piece of music that you don’t totally understand but you do enjoy listening to.
In physics, we talk about dimensions as… they’re, sort of, directions that you can go. So, in our world that we experience we have three dimensions; we have forward-backward, left-right, up-down. And we often talk about time as being a dimension when you get into, like, relativity and stuff, so then you can say we have four dimensions. But there are a lot of ideas in physics around possibilities of additional spatial dimensions.
So, imagine a direction that isn’t at right angles to all of our current directions, and that is not a thing that a human mind can visualize, for the most part. Maybe there are people who can do it. I have yet to meet someone who has convinced me that they can visualize this. But in principle, mathematically, it’s totally fine. You have a higher dimension that’s a direction that’s perpendicular to all of our directions, and you can have more of those. Mathematically, it makes sense to just… You can have four spatial dimensions, five spatial dimensions, eleven, whatever.
And there are certain reasons in physics why we hypothesize these things. One of the famous reasons people talk about higher dimensions in physics is because certain kinds of string theory ideas only work with higher dimensions, string theories in general. These ideas about unifying quantum mechanics and gravity, sometimes you need extra dimensions to do that, and you have some sort of physical object that moves in higher dimensions, and that corresponds to something that we observe in our dimensions, in our space. So, it kind of helps with the mathematical structure of these theories.
There are also ideas about extra dimensions that come in when you try to explain why gravity is so much weaker than the other forces of nature. We think of gravity as being strong, but you know, every time you pick up a coffee cup you’re overcoming the gravity of the entire Earth pulling down on it, and the coffee cup is holding itself together with electromagnetic forces. It’s not crumbling to a heap because of gravity. Gravity is weaker than electromagnetic forces, than the nuclear forces – the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.
And so there have been ideas about why that is that involve ‘maybe gravity is leaking into other dimensions’. Literally, the idea is that gravity can pass through higher dimensions of space that may or may not exist, and if that’s the case, then we see it as a little weaker in our three-dimensional space because the actual activity of gravity is through a larger space than what we experience. So, those are the kinds of things that we talk about when we talk about extra dimensions in physics.
Now, in general, if there is some higher-dimensional space… Let’s say we’re talking about… Well, there are a couple of different kinds of extra dimensions. (laughs) There are some that are small, which is a weird idea, but the idea being that… You know, our current dimensions of space are large, which means that you can go a long way in any of our three directions and you don’t hit any kind of edge, or come back on yourself, or anything. But in some theories, the extra dimensions, if they do exist, are very small, and that means that if you could go that weird direction, you wouldn’t get very far before you come back to where you started. So, those are not suitable for travel.
ROSE (on call):
That’s very Alice in Wonderland-like. You just end up in this tiny little loop.
Yeah. The other reason extra dimensions might not be suitable for travel is because, generally speaking, for most of these theories, though not all of them, the standard model particles, the particles that make up us, and matter, and even light, can only live on our three-dimensional space and it’s only gravity that extends through the higher dimensional spaces. So, being created of regular matter, our matter can’t go to those spaces, even if they do extend very far in some new direction. So that’s the very technical, physics-y version of higher dimensions. That is almost certainly not what anybody means when they talk about going to another dimension or a higher dimension or something.
When people talk about it colloquially, they mean like, an astral plane, which is an idea of some other kind of space that exists, maybe parallel to our space, or above our space in some way. And they’re not just talking about a direction there. It’s possible that they are… I’m trying hard here. It’s possible they’re talking about braneworlds.
A braneworld is a lower-dimensional space, like a 3D space, that lives inside a higher dimensional space, like a 4D space or a 5D space. So, it’s possible that our space is embedded within some space with a larger number of dimensions. It’s kind of like our space is, like, a sheet in a larger space, and there could be other sheets that are, sort of, three-dimensional spaces. That’s the braneworld idea. We call each three-dimensional sheet a brane, short for membrane, I guess.
So, we could be on a 3D brane, and there could be another 3D brane separated from us by this higher dimensional space that only gravity can pass through. And you know, who knows what could be on that other brane. And that could be thought of like a parallel universe. We don’t have any evidence that something like that exists. The most-often way it comes up as a possibility is, well, in some ideas where it can interact with our brane, and usually that’s catastrophic, so it’s not great. But potentially, there could be another space out there.
How would we know if we were in a brane? Like, if we were in a brane inside of another brane, how would we know that?
So, the tests of gravity are what could tell us that. If the extra dimension is large, then the strength of gravity would change differently than we expect as we look at very small scales. So basically, when we talk about large extra dimensions in physics, we’re actually not talking about, like, things that extend a really long way. Usually millimeter size or less. So you can’t go very far in those directions. But that means that if… Let’s say we have another dimension that’s only about a millimeter wide but it’s the fourth spatial dimension. Then if we can measure the gravitational force on the scale of a millimeter, then that’s where it starts to make a difference to how gravity acts.
So, if you’re standing a millimeter farther away from a mountain, you’re not going to notice the gravitational force is changing. But if you could measure the gravitational force of something that’s only a millimeter wide, and you go a little bit farther than that, then you should show a really big difference in the gravity as you get a little bit farther from that. And if the gravity is not just, you know, extending in our three-dimensional space but also going into another space that’s about the size of where you’re measuring it, then you’ll notice a difference. And then there’s a whole bunch of really esoteric particle physics experiments that are looking for various things that could be consequences of extra dimensions, and we haven’t found anything yet.
So you’d have to shrink yourself down very, very, very tiny and then maybe you could talk about potentially traveling to this small, new dimension? Or would you still not be able to travel even if you were super tiny?
So, yeah… Even then, in principle, only gravity can traverse that space. There are very few theories where other things can traverse that space, and I don’t know what it would do to you to try, so… (laughs) And I don’t know what it would do to you to be a macroscopic object trying to traverse a small space. So, I’m not sure that’s advisable. I also don’t know exactly what it would do to you.
(laughs) Could you travel between branes if we knew that they were there and we wanted to, like, move around between them?
Well, you’d have to cross the space that separates them. You can imagine two branes as being, sort of, sheets inside a 3D space, sheets of paper separated by some space. Like, you’d need to cross that space. They’re not touching each other. They’re not immediately adjacent. So, that’s what makes that difficult.
And what is that space? Is that just nothing? Like, what is that?
I mean, it depends on the theory. Sometimes it can have particles in it. It can be, you know, full of energy. It can be just empty spacetime, just empty space.
So, nobody knows.
Yeah. I mean, it depends on the theory and why you’re invoking these things, what it could have in it.
It’d be a risk to try.
Yeah. Again, not really sure I’d recommend it. (laughs) There are a lot of things that happen in science fiction that I would not recommend, like jumping into black holes. People do that a lot in science fiction. Not a good idea. Black holes are not a good place to go. They’re very dangerous if you get that close. They’re fine out there lightyears away or whatever, but you really don’t want to jump in.
You shouldn’t drive the spaceship into it.
No. You really shouldn’t. Bad things will happen to you in several different ways.
(laughs) Why do you think that these ideas of, like, other dimensions, or other universes, or parallel spaces are so appealing? I feel like I see them in bad science headlines all the time. People love this stuff. Why is this so appealing?
I think that we like the idea that there’s a universe out there, or a space out there that’s just very different, where maybe the rules are different, the laws of physics are different. And you know, if there is another, like, brane out there, it could have different laws of physics. It could have different activity, different rules. I do think a lot of it comes out of the astral plane idea that there’s a space that you might be able to tap into where the spirits live.
People want to connect with their lost loved ones, wise beings, the past, all of that. So, I think the idea that there’s some other space out there where, you know, people can communicate differently, or where people can live forever as disembodied something… People think that’s a neat idea. There are a lot of different faith traditions that have some kind of Heaven or some kind of afterlife where the rules are different, and maybe it’s better. I think that appeals to people a lot.
So, this question-asker, I feel like, part of it is probably seeing headlines that say, “There are potential extra dimensions,” or, “Potentially we’re living in a simulation,” or, “Potentially there are these other things.” And those are, like, fun… Probably not fun for you, but fun for a lot of people to see and think about because they are these big “Whoa!” galaxy brain ideas. But I also feel like it kind of is, like, if there was a way to get away from… Like, it’s kind of like a nice emergency brake, like, “We’ll just go to a different dimension and not have to deal with any of this here.”
Yeah, I can see why it’s appealing. It’s the ultimate escapism, right? Escape our entire universe and all of its laws. That sounds great, right? (laughs) The problem is, you don’t know what you’re going to find when you get there, which is often the problem with escapism. You leave someplace but then you’re in someplace, and you have to deal with being in that place.
If someone wanted to escape via physics, what would be a better way than trying to sublimate to a new dimension?
Escape what exactly?
I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to think of, like, if there are other, better versions of this that would actually potentially work. Not driving into a black hole. Not a good idea.
Right. Not a good idea.
What about a wormhole?
Uh… So, wormholes probably don’t exist.
Very sorry. (laughs) There’s no evidence for them existing, and theoretically it’s very hard to construct a mathematically consistent wormhole that doesn’t collapse on itself immediately. And if you can make one that doesn’t collapse on itself immediately, it’s usually very small and is held up by a kind of matter we don’t know if it exists or not; it probably doesn’t. Wormholes are a bit tricky.
If you could go into a wormhole, though, it would just take you somewhere else in our universe, which may or may not be helpful depending on where that someplace else is. In principle, it could also allow time travel, which is kind of cool. So, if you want to go to the past or the future, you know… I mean, going to the future is fairly easy, according to physics.
We’re doing it right now!
Yeah, we’re doing it now. And if you get in a spaceship that goes really, really fast, you can get there sooner than all of your friends who didn’t get in the spaceship. So, relativity is great for that. If you hang out really close to a black hole… Don’t go into it! But if you hang out close enough and let the curvature of space affect how time is flowing around you, then you can also get to the future faster than your friends.
Maybe going to the future is your best bet, if you really want to escape. Get in your spaceship, go really fast for a long time, come back… or go somewhere else if you think there’s somewhere else that’s nicer. And then, you know, see if we’ve worked it all out yet. And if not, you get back in your spaceship and try again.
That feels like a lot of faith to put in people, to be able to be like, “They’ll just work it out!” (laughs)
Yeah. And also it’s a little bit, kind of, freeloading on the progress of generations, right? That’s a little bit of a faux pas there. I don’t know. I think, for me, the escape you get with physics is more, kind of, philosophical. You get to think about the universe and how cool it is and gain some perspective, some kind of cosmic perspective of how we fit into this amazing cosmos and how unimportant we are to the universe. That can be helpful to think about sometimes. And you know, how fragile and temporary we are. Maybe just, kind of, having a cosmic sense of that can help you appreciate what you have even when it, sort of, sucks in its own way. It’s not practical, really, but I do think that stuff can be helpful.
More practical than trying to sublimate to another dimension, though, because that’s not possible, it sounds like.
Yeah. Yeah. I think the power of positive thinking is the best I can offer in terms of what physics can do to improve your circumstances. Destroying your physical form to exist as pure energy in some higher plane is probably not going to go the way you think.
In the more, like, philosophical realm, if you ever have the feeling of wanting to escape some situation, what kind of advice might you give in the non-physics sense of somebody who’s like, “I’ve got to get out of here!”
Oh, like practical world advice? Life advice? This is fun. Okay. (laughs) I think the first step I would suggest is to, you know, contact an actual professional, a counselor or psychologist who can help you talk through whatever it is that you’re trying to escape. In some cases you may need to enlist the help of a social worker or law enforcement agent, depending on what exactly you’re escaping.
But if it’s just that life is complicated and you don’t like how it’s going, then I think the most important thing is really to figure out what exactly you’re escaping. I think that’s always going to be the crux of the problem. People are not always clear on that. A lot of times people will just have this, sort of, malaise and don’t really know where it’s coming from, or what to do with it, or they’re not happy with their life and are not entirely sure why.
I think taking a good amount of time to figure out exactly what it is that’s bothering you, what parts of it are in your control, and what parts aren’t, and then you know, try some stuff. You don’t know what’s going to make your life better. Try some things. Maybe, you know, taking up a new sport is going to make you feel better, or some kind of hobby, or talking to your friends more, or going outside once in a while, or whatever. There are a lot of things that can help that you might not have thought of. So, I think being open to new experiences is a really good place to start. And talking to people who know more about life than theoretical physicists is also good.
Maybe learning some physics will give you some perspective.
Sure. Yeah. Exactly. Take up astronomy. Learn about math. There are some amazing books about abstract algebra out there, which I really think can help if you get really into that. I mean, just a suggestion.
Not for me. I don’t think so. (laughs)
You never know. It’s a totally different way of thinking about, like, patterns, and shapes, and how things are organized in the world. I thought it was amazing.
Katie, thank you for explaining dimensions to me, which seems like a thing I should know what they are, but turns out, they’re more complicated than I thought. Who knows. I guess that’s the common thing, I feel, whenever I have you on the show ever to talk about physics. I’m like, “That’s more complicated than I thought it was going to be.” (laughs)
I’m sorry. (laughs)
No, it’s good.
It’s because you’re asking questions about interesting things that are touching on real cutting-edge physics, so that’s cool.
It’s fun. And also, like, everything is always more complicated than it seems, right?
That is also true. Yes.
That is part of why we want to escape and sublimate to a different dimension, because maybe it’ll be simpler over there.
Yeah, because there’s only gravity and no other particles. Very simple. (laughs)
Right. And you’re also dead, so… (laughs)
Thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s always fun to talk to you.
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Do you have a question about the future? Some conundrum you’re facing now, or one that you think we might face in the future? Send it in! You can send a voice memo to Advice@FFwdPresents.com, or call (347) 927-1425 and leave a voice message.
And now, a quick break. When we come back, capitalism enters the chat.
Katie says that there probably are not extra dimensions in the way that you and I think about them, and I guess we have to take her word for it since she is the astrophysicist after all. But if I know one thing about capitalism, it’s that something doesn’t have to exist in order to be sold. And with that in mind, I present to you an original poem, written and performed by Jayne A. Quan. This is “A Path Above.”
[contemplative synth music begins]
A pamphlet in the waiting room promises me that the process is painless and the payout is wonderful. For all intents and purposes, it seems like an all-inclusive vacation getaway more than a seemingly permanent separation from my physical body.
Here are things I know about the procedure:
- It has a 100% satisfaction rate.
- No pain has ever been reported by clients.
- Nobody has asked to reverse the procedure.
- My brother got it done, last summer. I have not heard from him since.
In the waiting room, the seats are covered in stained leather, the imprints of asses before me, now gone off to some more final frontier. When I move, they creak. I wonder if making sound when we move is proof of our existence and if this procedure isn’t just some Doctor Kevorkian clinic.
Would it be so bad if it were?
Would it be so bad if it were not?
I used to think shifting between dimensions meant time travel, like finally being untethered by linear time. But then the procedure came out and it promised a path to a “higher” dimension. Something greater than fourth (time) or fifth (gravity, maybe) or even sixth.
I think “higher” just meant weirder. Weirder dimensions. Stranger concepts.
But they needed to position this new plane of being.
What was better than higher?
Religious believers certainly know that up is better than down.
But my brother simply went away.
I asked, while being interviewed (to see if I was a good candidate for sublimination), what would happen to my body afterward. (Probably because I missed my brother.) There was no part of him that had been returned to me, no plot of land, or urn, no proof that he had ever been here.
Clients wishing to embark on their journeys will not have to worry about their physical forms after sublimination is completed.
But I wanted to know what would happen to me. What had happened to him.
The Company treats all clients and their privacy with the utmost respect before, during, and after their facilitated beginning.
I never did get an answer.
but I wanted to go along with it
if you’re wondering
did I know he was going to do it
would it surprise you
to know that I did not
maybe I couldn’t have asked him to stay;
Sometimes I imagined that we all turned into soup. Big vats of primordial something, continuously being added to one another to make another life. And
That’s how it all starts. Another. And later, much much later, something
will come out of the all of us. An other.
Something legless, lacking spine. A collective. Me My brother. And the strangers who said
Other times I imagined that we turned into steam. That the first thing we learn to do in a higher dimension is not how to walk or run but how to dissipate so that we are everywhere. And also
I imagined a flash of light, so blinding it made our shadows permanent on the wall behind us. That I would go into a room and there would be the shadows of the people who said yes and maybe I could recognize my brother.
I would stand so that when they did vaporize me, my permanent shadow would remain right beside my brother. And someone later would recognize me, too. Maybe.
But I would come back. Just once.
Unlike my brother. Because he forgot to tell me
what it would feel like
when it finally happens and I go.
It feels like dying.
We assure you, we are not killing you.
But it feels like
making the choice
Life in a higher dimension is unknowable to us here! The joy of discovery and revelation the moment the procedure takes place is unfathomable in its intricacy and nuance. Worldly issues like money and politics will become trivial in an uncharted dimension. We believe in the process.
100% satisfaction guaranteed
and no client has ever asked
to reverse the process
my brother never asked
to see me again?
to reverse the process
he never asked?
all I want is new adventure
a chance to start over
and see something above.
beyond this. or higher.
just something new
[music stops abruptly]
[Advice For and From the Future theme fades in]
Advice For and From the Future is written, edited, and hosted by me, Rose Eveleth.
“A Path Above” was written and performed by Jayne A. Quan, a transmaculine, non-binary writer living in Los Angeles. You can find links to their work in the show notes. Please do check them out because they are incredibly talented.
The theme music is by Also, Also, Also, who has a new album out called The Good Grief, which you can get on Bandcamp. Thanks to Michael for your question and to Dr. Katie Mack for joining me to dash our hopes of escaping to an alternate dimension. Additional music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
If you want to ask a question for or from the future, send a voice memo to Advice@FFwdPresents.com. If you want to get behind-the-scenes stuff about how this show and other shows in the Flash Forward Presents network work and what’s coming up, you can do that by becoming a member of the Time Traveler Program. Just go to FFwdPresents.com for more about that.
Until next time…
[music fades down]
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