Sunday, January 24, 2016

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott and Rube Goldberg by Peter Marzio

I am not even remotely mathematically inclined and also I'm a visual learner so reading this book was something of a challenge to me.  Nevertheless I persevered and found the experience to be rewarding.

Once upon a time there was a land in only two dimensions.  We meet all the different shapes in Flatland, their hierarchy and sexes.  Women are straight lines and can be quite dangerous in their power to build or destroy.  Soldiers and workmen are uneven triangles, even triangles are middle class, professional men and gentlemen are squares or pentagons.

Square is our narrator and he spends at least half the book describing and explaining the inhabitants of Flatland and their social order.

The rest of the book is Square having dreams and visions about a one-dimensional place called "Lineland" in which he unsuccessfully explains his two-dimensional world to "people" who cannot conceive of multiple lines creating shapes.  They eventually try to lynch Square but he escapes.  Later he arrives at "Dotline" and the people there cannot even conceive of lines.  

Awake, Square is visited by a sphere from Spaceland which is beyond his understanding but he finally believes in its existence.  He proceeds to "evangelize" his flatland society but is locked up as he tries to get them to envision a cube.  Incidentally, they don't lock him up because they think he is crazy but because they think that this "higher level" of thinking is dangerous and would cause a disruption in the order of their existence. Which is true.  If the people of Flatland combined themselves to create three dimensional objects, Flatland would cease to exist, even if the people would not cease to exist.  But it would disrupt the order and social hierarchy.

I found the premise of this book fascinating because there is so much to our reality and existence that is just beyond our grasp and yet we know, by faith, that it is there.  We cannot lean on our own understanding which is finite and corrupt as a basis for belief.  All of us must take that leap into the greater reality.

Josh and I were standing in line to buy hot dogs at Sam's, our usual Saturday lunch before grocery shopping.  Josh was wearing his LeTourneau t-shirt, the university from which he graduated.  Standing behind us was an elderly couple who, knowing that LeTourneau was primarily an engineering school, asked if Josh had participated in the Rube Goldberg competitions that were held there annually.

Josh informed them that, although he started out as an engineering major he discovered he didn't love it enough to put the amount of work that was required so he switched to his real love, computers.

When we sat down I asked Josh what the Rube Goldberg competition was.  He told me it was a competition where teams of engineers try to design a series of mechanisms that result in a simple task being accomplished.  The team that makes the most lengthy, complicated and creative contraption wins.  

Who's Rube Goldberg, I asked.  Josh didn't answer he just busily punched away at his  cell phone.  What are you doing, I then asked.  Josh replied, I just ordered you a biography of Rube Goldberg.

Well, I have finished reading the biography and I must say that Goldberg was a very interesting man.  He got his start at the turn of the last century in local newspapers mostly writing cartoons about "fall guys" such as "Boob McNutt" who tries very hard to understand how life progresses but invariably falls into social traps. 

Because Goldberg lived at a time of great social change and the invention of modern machines, he was able to comment on it from the perspective of someone who literally was born in the horse and buggy era and died with jets flying overhead and men flying to the moon.

As a consequence his cartoons try to expose how complicated all the machines have actually made people's lives rather than simplify them.
As time marched onward and America lived through two World Wars, Goldberg began making cartoons that provided perspicacious and also scathing social commentary.

And I must say that even though he made the following cartoon in 1950, it was rather far seeing:

It's always fun to discover someone you've never known about and I was glad to learn about such an innovative and perspicacious person who left a legacy that I doubt can be repeated.


  1. Great commentary as usual Sharon.

    I read Flatland a long time ago. I agree, it really helps to open up one's mind to the possibilities of thinking out of the box.

    That one Goldberg cartoon about nuclear annihilation is so effective.

    1. Thanks, Brian. Rube Goldberg was prettying insightful.

  2. Flatland, a reading experience from my Paleolithic past, reminded me that my observations of the world in which I lived (versus the world represented in Flatland) were incomplete and superficial, which is perhaps the satirical unpinning of the book, but I could be quite wrong about that critical assertion.

    1. Hi RT. No, I think you are right. He is satirizing people's rebellion against changing the way they think.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.