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An Adventure in the Nth Dimension

On the mystery of a ball that fills a box, but vanishes in the vastness of higher dimensions

Brian Hayes

The area enclosed by a circle is πr2. The volume inside a sphere is 4/3πr3. These are formulas I learned too early in life. Having committed them to memory as a schoolboy, I ceased to ask questions about their origin or meaning. In particular, it never occurred to me to wonder how the two formulas are related, or whether they could be extended beyond the familiar world of two- and three-dimensional objects to the geometry of higher-dimensional spaces. What’s the volume bounded by a four-dimensional sphere? Is there some master formula that gives the measure of a round object in n dimensions?

Some 50 years after my first exposure to the formulas for area and volume, I have finally had occasion to look into these broader questions. Finding the master formula for n-dimensional volumes was easy; a few minutes with Google and Wikipedia was all it took. But I’ve had many a brow-furrowing moment since then trying to make sense of what the formula is telling me. The relation between volume and dimension is not at all what I expected; indeed, it’s one of the zaniest things I’ve ever come upon in mathematics. I’m appalled to realize that I have passed so much of my life in ignorance of this curious phenomenon. I write about it here in case anyone else also missed school on the day the class learned n-dimensional geometry.

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