Clifford’s `Space-Theory of Matter’

Well, here’s another thing I didn’t know until I was informed by Twitter.

Way back in 1876 –  forty years before Einstein presented his Theory of General Relativity – the mathematician W.K. Clifford (who is most famous nowadays for the Clifford Algebra) presented a short paper in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in which he speculated that space might be described by Riemannian rather than Euclidean Geometry.

Here are a couple of excerpts:


The paper does not contain any actual equations, and his concentration on small scales rather than large was misguided, but it is quite remarkable that he was thinking about such matters such a long time ago!

Unfortunately Clifford died very young, in 1879, at the age of 33, tuberculosis. Had he lived longer he might have been able to develop these ideas a bit further.

As a postscript I should mention that Clifford had an impressive beard.

10 Responses to “Clifford’s `Space-Theory of Matter’”

  1. Karl Schwarzschild also investigated this topic, long before discovering the eponymous metric (which has to do with curved space and curved spacetime, but embedded in a Minkowski spacetime, whereas previously he had discussed the large-scale geometry of the universe, as did Clifford.

    Note also that H. G. Wells, in The Time Machine, writes of time as an additional dimension.

  2. […] A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Clifford’s `Space-Theory of Matter’ […]

  3. Don’t confuse Will Clifford with Clifford Will. 🙂

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    One man deserves the credit
    One man deserves the fame…

  5. The historian Helge Kragh has done a detailed study of non-Euclidean models of the universe before Einstein, including an interesting model by Zollner. There is a good summary at
    The Schwarzschild model is interesting because he was well-prepared when GR emerged!

    • I’ve read many of Kragh’s books, am reading one now, and have already bought others. Highly recommended.

      Note that a positively curved finite space will not solve Olbers’s paradox.

  6. […] was Poetry. In case you’re interested the most popular post published in 2020 was this one, on Clifford’s Space-Theory of […]

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