Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: The Planiverse

The Planiverse: Computer Contact with a Two Dimensional World by A.K. Dewdney

Written in 1984, this is a fictional story of a computer science professor and his students making contact with a two-dimensional universe - The Planiverse - through a simulation program developed as a class project. More specifically, a telepathic connection is established with one of the universe's inhabitants called YNDRD otherwise known as "Yendred". The professor and students accompany Yendred on a journey and in the process discover the workings of the two-dimensional world.

Essentially, the book can be decomposed into two concurrent streams:

  • The story of Yendred's journey across his world in search of a mystic - Drabk - said to possess "knowledge of the beyond".
  • A series of expositions on the scientific, technological, and social aspects of Yendred's two-dimensional universe.

Basically, Yendred's journey provides the context and segues for the expositions. This structure reflects the book's derivation from two prior publications - the monograph Two-Dimensional Science and Technology and book Symposium on Two-Dimensional Science and Technology. Material from these prior works formed the basis for the expositions around which the fictional Yendred plot was wrapped to create a coherent, entertaining, and intellectually stimulating story.

Although I thought the Yendred story was only "OK", I really enjoyed the expositions - clearly a lot of thought was given to how a two dimensional world would work. For example, some of the scientific exposition topics were:

  • Thermodynamics and the extremely low melting point that two-dimensions lead to.
  • The mechanics of two-dimensional turbulence.
  • Electromagnetism and the lack of magnetic forces.
  • The "Global" weather patterns of a two-dimensional "planet"
  • Energy diminishing according to the inverse of distance (instead of the inverse-square as in three dimensions).
  • The biological structure of two-dimensional organisms.
  • Two-dimensional chemistry and the limited number of possible elements.

The technical expositions discussed the design of two-dimensional objects such as:

  • Buildings that avoided obstructing surface travel.
  • Doors that allowed privacy and structural integrity while remaining passable.
  • Functional steam engines, foundries, space rockets, and fishing boats.
  • Balloons for travel and the shipment of freight.
  • Gears capable of varying torque in the absence of axles.
  • Subterranean elevators.
  • Electronic circuits suitable for constructing rudimentary computers.
  • A wind powered generator for recharging batteries - the only viable source of electricity as wires create impassable obstacles.

The social expositions discussed topics such as:

  • How the world's inhabitants "passed" each other while traveling (they walk over each other according to social conventions).
  • How traveler's deal with surface events like a sports game (they wait until it's done).
  • Two dimensional warfare and its influence on politics.

In summary, if you enjoy thinking differently about science, and technology then I think you'll enjoy reading this book. The ability to think about problems from different perspectives is an important and powerful skill - I think reading books like The Planiverse is one way to help develop that skill.