Finding Inspiration for a Fifth Dimension in the Night Sky

Question: What are you trying to establish about the universe in your work? 

Arlie Petters: To find a scientific way to test whether there is an extra dimension, whether there is a fifth dimension. The problem is, imagine if you live on the surface of a sheet of paper and you can’t get off it. How do you know there is such a thing as "off" the sheet of paper? We cannot come out of length, width, and height. Even saying that sounds a little crazy, right? Well the way that we approached this problem was if you have a fifth dimension, then there’s supposed to be black holes called braneworld black holes that come from that dimension. And if one of them enters out world, it’s going to have a signature in light. It will have a gravitational lensing signature. And we had to develop a whole mathematical theory for how you classify that signature. The signature turns out to be a very elegant prediction, a wiggle in the energy spectrum of light that would be specific to that kind of black hole. 

Question: When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist? 

Arlie Petters: I think it has to do with the story of art, the story of looking at the night sky and my high school math teacher. I always wanted to be an artist, and as a kid I drew for many, many hours. And I realized that the moment of peace, when you’re sketching, it felt so good. And would you believe that that same experience that I had when I looked at the night sky and when my geometry teacher began telling us about all these beautiful theorems, and so that "eureka" was seeing beauty in places that seemed totally disconnected.  

I would say that the feelings I got from geometry classes and the feelings I got when looking at the night sky, and the deep mystery of it just being what it is, I believe that that connection was the thing that hooked me. I always wanted to be able to have that type of feeling. It’s a bit like a painter, right. You struggle and it’s not always a nice feeling because it’s going back and forth. But at the end of the day, you are creating something that moves you deep in side. That I believe is the experience that allowed me to do this for so many years and not get burned out with it. 

Question: Was there something in your education that ignited your passion for science and math? 

Arlie Petters: Growing in Dangriga, Belize, I really was in a home with my grandparents. They never went to high school. And therefore, when I had to do my homework and all of these things, for the most part, I was left all alone. But one thing I know that was very helpful with being self-taught, mathematics is such a rigorous and, in some ways, unforgiving medium that it allows you to quickly see when you are going down wrong paths. If you make an illogical step, you will see the error and it brings you right back on the straight and narrow. 

Question: Would a privileged education have directed your career differently? 

Arlie Petters: I believe that my path would have been quite different. Being forced to teach yourself, you are able to learn things that are quick for you and things that are harder for you to digest. And, in a sense, it allows you to develop the game plan that is tailored best for your intellectual orientation. That’s how I see it personally. 

Question: How can we inspire young people to get excited about math and science? 

Arlie Petters: Well you know one of the profound connections for me was actually with Einstein’s Theory. This is generally viewed as an exotic area of knowledge: space and time bending. You hear about black holes, right? And all of this stuff. And you sort of feel, these are some out yonder-type individuals just pursuing in a self-indulgent manner. But when you discover that you have to use this exact theory—in fact it’s with the one with black holes—for you to set up GPS technology, that to me is a very profound connection. And it’s the kind of connection that I think interests young people. When they see that deep mathematics, deep ideas in physics actually can help planes land in bad weather. 

Question: Did you have role models who influenced your decision to become a scientist? 

Arlie Petters: I had several role models as a kid and I will say one of the early ones was definitely Einstein. What I loved about him is that he was not afraid to go into the unknown intellectually. And in a sense, imagine the pioneers heading West, right? You must be afraid of the Rockies and then you hit desert, but he has the perseverance and the bravery to be able to go into these type of terrain. And that inspires you as a young person to not be afraid. 

Question: Why is math important? 

Arlie Petters: I feel that math is a great unifier. It is in astronomy, it's in aesthetic balances in art, and, in particular, Dali is one artist that had a profound influence on me. And if you look at his crucifixion painting you see Christ is actually crucified on a cross that is an unfolding of a four dimensional object. Where did the Dali learn that? It came from mathematics. 

Question: How can scientists inspire young people? 

Arlie Petters: I believe you pick things in the world that’s amazing. For example, here in New York, I would walk them around and show them the skyscrapers, and I would ask them questions. If a strong hurricane comes here, will it tip over? Because you are wondering, right. They are tight and what makes it stand up? It’s amazing, beautiful trigonometry that’s right there in the structural stability of skyscrapers. And then they’ll see the plane flying ahead. Say, would you like to learn the principles that govern flight? That then opens your eyes to worlds that each one of us, scientists or not, are mystified by.

Recorded on April 19, 2010

The mathematical physicist reflects upon his untraditional math and science education in Belize, and talks about how Einstein's theory of relativity is a "profound connection" that can inspire young people.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Keep reading Show less

CT scans of shark intestines find Nikola Tesla’s one-way valve

Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
  • The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
  • The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Keep reading Show less

Mammals dream about the world they are entering even before birth

A study finds that baby mammals dream about the world they are about to experience to prepare their senses.

Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find that babies of mammals dream about the world they are entering.
  • The study focused on neonatal waves in mice before they first opened their eyes.
  • Scientists believe human babies also prime their visual motion detection before birth.
Keep reading Show less