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Tinkering with dimensions

Boole Stott

These colourful orbs mee look like something a child made, but actually the are actually four-dimensional shapes, or polytopes. Sounds complicated? That’s because it is.

You can make a three-dimensional cube from flat squares. To do this, you sort of ‘push’ the squares up into the third dimension. A polytope comes about in the same way. However, we cannot see the shape that is then created. We can only argue it exists.

The woman that made these spheres however, the Irish Alicia Boole Stott, could. She had the unique ability to visualize these shapes and made detailed models of them. 3D cross sections of 4D shapes. And she didn’t even have a formal education.

So it’s not surprising that mathematician Pieter Schoute from Groningen had never heard of Boole Stott when a letter of hers landed in his mailbox in 1894. He too was engaged in four-dimensional math, but in a more theoretical way. Boole Stott had read an article of his and sent him a picture of her models.

He was so impressed that he not only travelled to London straight away, but also proposed to work together. For twenty years they combined her intuitive insights and his theoretical work.

Last modified:25 September 2019 3.17 p.m.
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