In mathematics the dimension of a space is roughly defined as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify every point within it. For example: the circle in the plane can be described by two Cartesian coordinates but one can make do with less (the polar coordinate angle), thus a circle is 1-dimensional even though it lives in the 2-dimensional plane. This intrinsic notion of dimension is one of the chief ways in which the mathematical notion of dimension differs from its common usages.
There is also an inductive description of dimension: consider a discrete set of points (such as a finite collection of points) to be 0-dimensional. By dragging a 0-dimensional object in some direction, one obtains a 1-dimensional object. By dragging a 1-dimensional object in a new direction, one obtains a 2-dimensional object. In general one obtains an n+1-dimensional object by dragging an n dimensional object in a new direction. Returning to the circle example: a circle can be thought of as being drawn as the end-point on the minute hand of a clock, thus it is 1-dimensional. To construct the plane one needs two steps: drag a point to construct the real numbers, then drag the real numbers to produce the plane.
Consider the above inductive construction from a practical point of view -- ie: with concrete objects that one can play with in one's hands. Start with a point, drag it to get a line. Drag a line to get a square. Drag a square to get a cube. Any small translation of a cube has non-trivial overlap with the cube before translation, thus the process stops. This is why space is said to be 3-dimensional.
High-dimensional spaces occur in mathematics and the sciences for many reasons, frequently as configuration spaces such as in Lagrangian or Hamiltonian mechanics. Ie: these are abstract spaces, independent of the actual space we live in. The state-space of quantum mechanics is an infinite-dimensional function space. Some physical theories are also by nature high-dimensional, such as the 4-dimensional general relativity and higher-dimensional string theories.
In mathematics, the dimension of Euclidean n-space E n is n. When trying to generalize to other types of spaces, one is faced with the question “what makes E n n-dimensional?" One answer is that in order to cover a fixed ball in E n by small balls of radius ε, one needs on the order of ε−n such small balls. This observation leads to the definition of the Minkowski dimension and its more sophisticated variant, the Hausdorff dimension. But there are also other answers to that question. For example, one may observe that the boundary of a ball in E n looks localy like E n − 1 and this leads to the notion of the inductive dimension. While these notions agree on E n, they turn out to be different when one looks at more general spaces.
A tesseract is an example of a four-dimensional object. Whereas outside of mathematics the use of the term "dimension" is as in: "A tesseract has four dimensions," mathematicians usually express this as: "The tesseract has dimension 4," or: "The dimension of the tesseract is 4."
Although the notion of higher dimensions goes back to Rene Descartes, substantial development of higher-dimensional geometry only began in the 19th century, via the work of Arthur Cayley, William Rowan Hamilton, Ludwig Schläfli and Bernhard Riemann. Riemann's 1854 Habilitationsschrift, Schlafi's 1852 Theorie der vielfachen Kontinuität, Hamilton's 1843 discovery of the quaternions and the construction of the Cayley Algebra marked the beginning of higher-dimensional geometry.
The rest of this section examines some of the more important mathematical definitions of dimension.
A connected topological manifold is locally homeomorphic to Euclidean n-space, and the number n is called the manifold's dimension. One can show that this yields a uniquely defined dimension for every connected topological manifold.
The theory of manifolds, in the field of geometric topology, is characterized by the way dimensions 1 and 2 are relatively elementary, the high-dimensional cases are simplified by having extra space in which to 'work'; and the cases n = 3 and 4 are in some senses the most difficult. This state of affairs was highly marked in the various cases of the Poincaré conjecture, where four different proof methods are applied.
For any normal topological space X, the Lebesgue covering dimension of X is defined to be n if n is the smallest integer for which the following holds: any open cover has an open refinement (a second open cover where each element is a subset of an element in the first cover) such that no point is included in more than n + 1 elements. In this case we write dim X = n. For X a manifold, this coincides with the dimension mentioned above. If no such integer n exists, then the dimension of X is said to be infinite, and we write dim X = ∞. Note also that we say X has dimension −1, i.e. dim X = −1 if and only if X is empty. This definition of covering dimension can be extended from the class of normal spaces to all Tychonoff spaces merely by replacing the term "open" in the definition by the term "functionally open".
The inductive dimension of a topological space may refer to the small inductive dimension or the large inductive dimension, and is based on the analogy that balls have n dimensional boundaries, permitting an inductive definition based on the dimension of the boundaries of open sets.
For sets which are of a complicated structure, especially fractals, the Hausdorff dimension is useful. The Hausdorff dimension is defined for all metric spaces and, unlike the Hamel dimension, can also attain non-integer real values. The box dimension or Minkowski dimension is a variant of the same idea. In general, there exist more definitions of fractal dimensions that work for highly irregular sets and attain non-integer positive real values.
Every Hilbert space admits an orthonormal basis, and any two such bases for a particular space have the same cardinality. This cardinality is called the dimension of the Hilbert space. This dimension is finite if and only if the space's Hamel dimension is finite, and in this case the 15 dimensions coincide.
Classical physics theories describe three physical dimensions: from a particular point in space, the basic directions in which we can move are up/down, left/right, and forward/backward. Movement in any other direction can be expressed in terms of just these three. Moving down is the same as moving up a negative amount. Moving diagonally upward and forward is just as the name of the direction implies; i.e., moving in a linear combination of up and forward. In its simplest form: a line describes one dimension, a plane describes two dimensions, and a cube describes three dimensions. (See Space and Cartesian coordinate system.)
The equations used in physics to model reality do not treat time in the same way that humans perceive it. The equations of classical mechanics are symmetric with respect to time, and equations of quantum mechanics are typically symmetric if both time and other quantities (such as charge and parity) are reversed. In these models, the perception of time flowing in one direction is an artifact of the laws of thermodynamics (we perceive time as flowing in the direction of increasing entropy).
The best-known treatment of time as a dimension is Poincaré and Einstein's special relativity (and extended to general relativity), which treats perceived space and time as components of a four-dimensional manifold, known as spacetime, and in the special, flat case as Minkowski space.
Theories such as string theory and M-theory predict that physical space in general has in fact 10 and 11 dimensions, respectively. The extra dimensions are spacelike. We perceive only three spatial dimensions, and no physical experiments have confirmed the reality of additional dimensions. A possible explanation that has been suggested is that space is as it were "curled up" in the extra dimensions on a subatomic scale, possibly at the quark/string level of scale or below.
Perhaps the most basic way in which the word dimension is used in literature is as a hyperbolic synonym for feature, attribute, aspect, or magnitude. Frequently the hyperbole is quite literal as in he's so 2-dimensional, meaning that one can see at a glance what he is. This contrasts with 3-dimensional objects which have an interior that is hidden from view.
Science fiction texts often mention the concept of dimension, when really referring to parallel universes, alternate universes, or other planes of existence. This usage is derived from the idea that in order to travel to parallel/alternate universes/planes of existence one must travel in a spatial direction/dimension besides the standard ones. In effect, the other universes/planes are just a small distance away from our own, but the distance is in a fourth (or higher) spatial dimension, not the standard ones.
One of the most heralded science fiction novellas regarding true geometric dimensionality, and often recommended as a starting point for those just starting to investigate such matters, is the 1884 novel Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott. Isaac Asimov, in his foreword to the Signet Classics 1984 edition, described Flatland as "The best introduction one can find into the manner of perceiving dimensions."
In 1783, Kant wrote: "That everywhere space (which is not itself the boundary of another space) has three dimensions and that space in general cannot have more dimensions is based on the proposition that not more than three lines can intersect at right angles in one point. This proposition cannot at all be shown from concepts, but rests immediately on intuition and indeed on pure intuition a priori because it is apodictically (demonstrably) certain.