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How Many Dimensions Are There?

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Ask someone to name every dimension they know of and they'll likely list the following: length, width, and depth. They might also add time if they’re thinking outside the three-dimensional box. But asking a string theorist, “How many dimensions are there?” would elicit a very different response. According to this branch of theoretical physics, there are at least 10 dimensions of space, most of which are impossible for humans to perceive.

Dimensions are the metrics that physicists use to describe reality. Sounds broad, right? Let's start with the three dimensions most people learn in grade school. The spatial dimensions—width, height, and depth—are the easiest to visualize. A horizontal line exists in one dimension because it only has length; a square is two-dimensional because it has length and width. Add depth and we get a cube, or a three-dimensional shape.

These three coordinates are used to pinpoint an object's location in space. But space isn’t the only plane we exist on; we also exist in time, which is where the fourth dimension comes in. Once we know a dot's altitude, longitude, latitude, and position in time, we have the tools needed to plot its existence in the universe as we know it.

But some physicists who subscribe to string theory argue there’s more to reality than the observable universe. String theory, also known as "superstring theory," aims to unify two main theories describing how the universe works: general relativity (which applies to very large objects) and quantum mechanics (which applies to very small ones). In a four-dimensional universe, this theory wouldn’t be possible, but once scientists tweaked the math to include 10 dimensions—11 including time—their equations worked.

After coming up with a theory that hinges on the existence of 10 space dimensions, string theorists then had the job of explaining where those new dimensions were hiding. Their answer: They are just as real as the "big" dimensions we can see, but the extra dimensions are curled up so tightly that they're too small for us to notice directly.

Our basic understanding of physics makes this hard to process, but string theorist Brian Greene does a great job of framing the concept in terms most people can understand. In his 2005 TED Talk, Greene compares these invisible dimensions to the cables connected to telephone poles: From a window, a wire looks like a one-dimensional line. But if we were to study it up close we'd see that the cord is actually round, making it three-dimensional. No analogy comparing unobservable dimensions to objects in the observable world can ever be perfect, but this illustrates how something so fundamental to reality could be hiding in plain sight.

String theory states there must be at least 10 dimensions of space plus one dimension for time, but there are physicists who argue that there are more. Some posit a universe composed of 11 space dimensions. But to really blow someone's mind when they ask how many dimensions there are, say 26: That's the magic number according to Bosonic string theory, and it's as high as mainstream physicists are willing to go for the time being.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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