Eddington 1927: Non-Euclidean Geometry


This paper presents Chapter VII (section 5) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Non-Euclidean Geometry

I have been encouraging you to think of space-time as curved; but I have been careful to speak of this as a picture, not as a hypothesis. It is a graphical representation of the things we are talking about which supplies us with insight and guidance. What we glean from the picture can be expressed in a more non-committal way by saying that space-time has non-Euclidean geometry. The terms “curved space” and “non-Euclidean space” are used practically synonymously; but they suggest rather different points of view. When we were trying to conceive finite and unbounded space (p. 81) the difficult step was the getting rid of the inside and the outside of the hypersphere. There is a similar step in the transition from curved space to non-Euclidean space—the dropping of all relations to an external (and imaginary) scaffolding and the holding on to those relations which exist within the space itself.

If you ask what is the distance from Glasgow to New York there are two possible replies. One man will tell you the distance measured over the surface of the ocean; another will recollect that there is a still shorter distance by tunnel through the earth. The second man makes use of a dimension which the first had put out of mind. But if two men do not agree as to distances, they will not agree as to geometry; for geometry treats of the laws of distances. To forget or to be ignorant of a dimension lands us into a different geometry. Distances for the second man obey a Euclidean geometry of three dimensions; distances for the first man obey a non-Euclidean geometry of two dimensions. And so if you concentrate your attention on the earth’s surface so hard that you forget that there is an inside or an outside to it, you will say that it is a two-dimensional manifold with non-Euclidean geometry; but if you recollect that there is three-dimensional space all round which affords shorter ways of getting from point to point, you can fly back to Euclid after all. You will then “explain away” the non-Euclidean geometry by saying that what you at first took for distances were not the proper distances. This seems to be the easiest way of seeing how a non-Euclidean geometry can arise— through mislaying a dimension—but we must not infer that non-Euclidean geometry is impossible unless it arises from this cause.

Euclidean space is material-space; Euclidean geometry applies to material-substance. We would think of non-Euclidean space as the field-space; non-Euclidean geometry then applies to field-substance. The additional “dimension” that comes into play here is the dimension of quantization.

In our four-dimensional world pervaded by gravitation the distances obey a non-Euclidean geometry. Is this because we are concentrating attention wholly on its four dimensions and have missed the short cuts through regions beyond? By the aid of six extra dimensions we can return to Euclidean geometry; in that case our usual distances from point to point in the world are not the “true” distances, the latter taking shorter routes through an eighth or ninth dimension. To bend the world in a super-world of ten dimensions so as to provide these short cuts does, I think, help us to form an idea of the properties of its non-Euclidean geometry; at any rate the picture suggests a useful vocabulary for describing those properties. But we are not likely to accept these extra dimensions as a literal fact unless we regard non-Euclidean geometry as a thing which at all costs must be explained away.

Of the two alternatives—a curved manifold in a Euclidean space of ten dimensions or a manifold with non-Euclidean geometry and no extra dimensions— which is right? I would rather not attempt a direct answer, because I fear I should get lost in a fog of metaphysics. But I may say at once that I do not take the ten dimensions seriously; whereas I take the non- Euclidean geometry of the world very seriously, and I do not regard it as a thing which needs explaining away. The view, which some of us were taught at school, that the truth of Euclid’s axioms can be seen intuitively, is universally rejected nowadays. We can no more settle the laws of space by intuition than we can settle the laws of heredity. If intuition is ruled out, the appeal must be to experiment—genuine open-minded experiment unfettered by any preconception as to what the verdict ought to be. We must not afterwards go back on the experiments because they make out space to be very slightly non-Euclidean. It is quite true that a way out could be found. By inventing extra dimensions we can make the non-Euclidean geometry of the world depend on a Euclidean geometry of ten dimensions; had the world proved to be Euclidean we could, I believe, have made its geometry depend on a non-Euclidean geometry of ten dimensions. No one would treat the latter suggestion seriously, and no reason can be given for treating the former more seriously.

Field-substance is merely much less substantial than the material-substance.  The quantization levels are very distinct for field-substance. The ten coefficients of the general theory of relativity describe the twisting of the field-substance as it “moves” in the dimension of quantization.

I do not think that the six extra dimensions have any stalwart defenders; but we often meet with attempts to reimpose Euclidean geometry on the world in another way. The proposal, which is made quite unblushingly, is that since our measured lengths do not obey Euclidean geometry we must apply corrections to them—cook them —till they do. A closely related view often advocated is that space is neither Euclidean nor non-Euclidean; it is all a matter of convention and we are free to adopt any geometry we choose.*

* As a recent illustration of this attitude I may refer to Bertrand Russell’s Analysis of Matter, p. 78—a book with which I do not often seriously disagree. “Whereas Eddington seems to regard it as necessary to adopt Einstein’s variable space, Whitehead regards it as necessary to reject it. For my part, I do not see why we should agree with either view; the matter seems to be one of convenience in the interpretation of formulae.” Russell’s view is commended in a review by C. D. Broad. See also footnote, p. 142.

Naturally if we hold ourselves free to apply any correction we like to our experimental measures we can make them obey any law; but was it worth while saying this? The assertion that any kind of geometry is permissible could only be made on the assumption that lengths have no fixed value—that the physicist does not (or ought not to) mean anything in particular when he talks of length. I am afraid I shall have a difficulty in making my meaning clear to those who start from the assumption that my words mean nothing in particular; but for those who will accord them some meaning I will try to remove any possible doubt. The physicist is accustomed to state lengths to a great number of significant figures; to ascertain the significance of these lengths we must notice how they are derived; and we find that they are derived from a comparison with the extension of a standard of specified material constitution. (We may pause to notice that the extension of a standard material configuration may rightly be regarded as one of the earliest subjects of inquiry in a physical survey of our environment.) These lengths are a gateway through which knowledge of the world around us is sought. Whether or not they will remain prominent in the final picture of world-structure will transpire as the research proceeds; we do not prejudge that. Actually we soon find that space-lengths or time-lengths taken singly are relative, and only a combination of them could be expected to appear even in the humblest capacity in the ultimate world-structure. Meanwhile the first step through the gateway takes us to the geometry obeyed by these lengths—very nearly Euclidean, but actually non-Euclidean and, as we have seen, a distinctive type of non-Euclidean geometry in which the ten principal coefficients of curvature vanish. We have shown in this chapter that the limitation is not arbitrary; it is a necessary property of lengths expressed in terms of the extension of a material standard, though it might have been surprising if it had occurred in lengths defined otherwise. Must we stop to notice the interjection that if we had meant something different by length we should have found a different geometry? Certainly we should; and if we had meant something different by electric force we should have found equations different from Maxwell’s equations. Not only empirically but also by theoretical reasoning, we reach the geometry which we do because our lengths mean what they do.

The absolute quantity is inertia. The INERTIA is a measure of how substantial the material-substance is. As electromagnetic radiation has come to be recognized as field-substance, we use the term quantization to describe substantialness of field-substance. In this discussion, we shall use inertia to refer to the substantialness of substance in general.

The substance has natural motion which is balanced by its inertia. The object, thus balanced within itself, has a natural velocity. This velocity increases as the inertia decreases. Because inertia is absolute, so is this natural velocity. It then ascertains a certain combination of space and time for the object. We are not free to make our experimental measures obey any law.

Material-space has definite lengths that may be considered absolute. Any variation of length from one material to the next shall depend on the variation of inertia. However this variation happens to be insignificant in the material domain.

The variation becomes significant only in the field domain. But that is accounted for by quantization. The ten principal coefficients of curvature vanish as the quantization (substantialness) approaches zero.

I have too long delayed dealing with the criticism of the pure mathematician who is under the impression that geometry is a subject that belongs entirely to him. Each branch of experimental knowledge tends to have associated with it a specialised body of mathematical investigations. The pure mathematician, at first called in as servant, presently likes to assert himself as master; the connexus of mathematical propositions becomes for him the main subject, and he does not ask permission from Nature when he wishes to vary or generalise the original premises. Thus he can arrive at a geometry unhampered by any restriction from actual space measures; a potential theory unhampered by any question as to how gravitational and electrical potentials really behave; a hydrodynamics of perfect fluids doing things which it would be contrary to the nature of any material fluid to do. But it seems to be only in geometry that he has forgotten that there ever was a physical subject of the same name, and even resents the application of the name to anything but his network of abstract mathematics. I do not think it can be disputed that, both etymologically and traditionally, geometry is the science of measurement of the space around us; and however much the mathematical superstructure may now overweigh the observational basis, it is properly speaking an experimental science. This is fully recognised in the “reformed” teaching of geometry in schools; boys are taught to verify by measurement that certain of the geometrical propositions are true or nearly true. No one questions the advantage of an unfettered development of geometry as a pure mathematical subject; but only in so far as this subject is linked to the quantities arising out of observation and measurement, will it find mention in a discussion of the Nature of the Physical World.

Any geometry is constrained by the quantization of substance it is representing. Geometry cannot be specified arbitrarily independent of substance. Geometry does not exist in the absence of substance.


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