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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.

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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Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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