The Shape of Inner Space

String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions


By Shing-Tung Yau

By Steve Nadis

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String theory says we live in a ten-dimensional universe, but that only four are accessible to our everyday senses. According to theorists, the missing six are curled up in bizarre structures known as Calabi-Yau manifolds. In The Shape of Inner Space, Shing-Tung Yau, the man who mathematically proved that these manifolds exist, argues that not only is geometry fundamental to string theory, it is also fundamental to the very nature of our universe.

Time and again, where Yau has gone, physics has followed. Now for the first time, readers will follow Yau’s penetrating thinking on where we’ve been, and where mathematics will take us next. A fascinating exploration of a world we are only just beginning to grasp, The Shape of Inner Space will change the way we consider the universe on both its grandest and smallest scales.



Mathematics is often called the language of science, or at least the language of the physical sciences, and that is certainly true: Our physical laws can only be stated precisely in terms of mathematical equations rather than through the written or spoken word. Yet regarding mathematics as merely a language doesn’t do justice to the subject at all, as the word leaves the erroneous impression that, save for some minor tweaks here and there, the whole business has been pretty well sorted out.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Although scholars have built a strong foundation over the course of hundreds—and indeed thousands—of years, mathematics is still very much a thriving and dynamic enterprise. Rather than being a static body of knowledge (not to suggest that languages themselves are set in stone), mathematics is actually a dynamic, evolving science, with new insights and discoveries made every day rivaling those made in other branches of science, though mathematical discoveries don’t capture the headlines in the same way that the discovery of a new elementary particle, a new planet, or a new cure for cancer does. In fact, save for the proof of a centuries-old problem from time to time, they rarely capture headlines at all.

Yet for those who appreciate the sheer force of mathematics, it can be viewed as not just a language but as the surest path to the truth—the bedrock upon which the whole edifice of physical science rests. The strength of this discipline, again, lies not simply in its ability to explain physical reality or to reveal it, because to a mathematician, mathematics is reality. The geometric figures and spaces, whose existence we prove, are just as real to us as are the elementary particles of physics that make up all matter. But we consider mathematical structures even more fundamental than the particles of nature because mathematical structures can be used not only to understand such particles but also to understand the phenomena of everyday life, such as the contours of a human face or the symmetry of flowers. What excites geometers perhaps most of all is the power and beauty of the abstract principles that underlie the familiar forms and shapes of our contemporary world.

For me, the study of mathematics and my specialty, geometry, has truly been an adventure. I still recall the thrill I felt during my first year of graduate school, when—as a twenty-year-old fresh off the boat, so to speak—I first learned about Einstein’s theory of gravity. I was struck by the notion that gravity and curvature could be regarded as one and the same, as I’d already become fascinated with curved surfaces during my undergraduate years in Hong Kong. Something about these shapes appealed to me on a visceral level. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Hearing that curvature lay at the heart of Einstein’s theory of general relativity gave me hope that someday, and in some way, I might be able to contribute to our understanding of the universe.

The Shape of Inner Space describes my explorations in the field of mathematics, focusing on one discovery in particular that has helped some scientists build models of the universe. No one can say for sure whether these models will ultimately prove correct. But the theory underlying these models, nevertheless, possesses a beauty that I find undeniable.

Taking on a book of this nature has been challenging, to say the least, for someone like me who’s more comfortable with geometry and nonlinear differential equations than writing in the English language, which is not my native tongue. I find it frustrating because there’s a great clarity, as well as a kind of elegance, in mathematical equations that is difficult, if not impossible, to express in words. It’s a bit like trying to convey the majesty of Mount Everest or Niagara Falls without any pictures.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten some well-needed help on this front. Although this narrative is told through my eyes and in my voice, my coauthor has been responsible for translating the abstract and abstruse mathematics into (hopefully) lucid prose.

When I proved the Calabi conjecture—an effort that lies at the heart of this book—I dedicated the paper containing that proof to my late father, Chen Ying Chiu, an educator and philosopher who instilled in me a respect for the power of abstract thought. I dedicate this book to him and to my late mother, Leung Yeuk Lam, both of whom had a profound influence on my intellectual growth. In addition, I want to pay tribute to my wife, Yu-Yun, who has been so tolerant of my rather excessive (and perhaps obsessive) research and travel schedule, and to my sons, Isaac and Michael, of whom I’m very proud.

I also dedicate this book to Eugenio Calabi, the author of the aforementioned conjecture, whom I’ve known for nearly forty years. Calabi were an enormously original mathematician with whom I’ve been linked for more than a quarter century through a class of geometric objects, Calabi-Yau manifolds, which serve as the principal subject of this book. The term Calabi-Yau has been so widely used since it was coined in 1984 that I almost feel as if Calabi is my first name. And if it is to be my first name—at least in the public’s mind—it’s one I’m proud to have.

The work that I do, much of which takes place along the borders between mathematics and theoretical physics, is rarely done in isolation, and I have benefited greatly from interactions with friends and colleagues. I’ll mention a few people, among many, who have collaborated with me directly or inspired me in various ways.

First, I’d like to pay tribute to my teachers and mentors, a long line of illustrious people that includes S. S. Chern, Charles Morrey, Blaine Lawson, Isadore Singer, Louis Nirenberg, and the aforementioned Calabi. I’m pleased that Singer invited Robert Geroch to speak at a 1973 Stanford conference, where Geroch inspired my work with Richard Schoen on the positive mass conjecture. My subsequent interest in physics-related mathematics has always been encouraged by Singer.

I’m grateful for the conversations I had on general relativity while visiting Stephen Hawking and Gary Gibbons at Cambridge University. I learned about quantum field theory from one of the masters of the subject, David Gross. I remember in 1981, when I was a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, the time Freeman Dyson brought a fellow physicist, who had just arrived in Princeton, into my office. The newcomer, Edward Witten, told me about his soon-to-be-published proof of the positive mass conjecture—a conjecture I had previously proved with a colleague using a very different technique. I was struck, for the first of many times to come, by the sheer force of Witten’s mathematics.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed close collaborations with a number of people, including Schoen (mentioned above), S. Y. Cheng, Richard Hamilton, Peter Li, Bill Meeks, Leon Simon, and Karen Uhlenbeck. Other friends and colleagues who have added to this adventure in many ways include Simon Donaldson, Robert Greene, Robert Osserman, Duong Hong Phong, and Hung-Hsi Wu.

I consider myself especially lucky to have spent the past twenty-plus years at Harvard, which has provided an ideal environment for interactions with both mathematicians and physicists. During my time here, I’ve gained many insights from talking to Harvard math colleagues—such as Joseph Bernstein, Noam Elkies, Dennis Gaitsgory, Dick Gross, Joe Harris, Heisuke Hironaka, Arthur Jaffe (also a physicist), David Kazdhan, Peter Kronheimer, Barry Mazur, Curtis McMullen, David Mumford, Wilfried Schmid, Yum-Tong Siu, Shlomo Sternberg, John Tate, Cliff Taubes, Richard Taylor, H. T. Yau, and the late Raoul Bott and George Mackey—while having memorable exchanges with MIT math colleagues as well. On the physics side, I’ve had countless rewarding conversations with Andy Strominger and Cumrun Vafa.

In the past ten years, I was twice an Eilenberg visiting professor at Columbia, where I had many stimulating conversations with faculty members, especially with Dorian Goldfeld, Richard Hamilton, Duong Hong Phong, and S. W. Zhang. I was also a Fairchild visiting professor and Moore visiting professor at Caltech, where I learned a lot from Kip Thorne and John Schwarz.

Over the last twenty-three years, I have been supported by the U.S. government through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and DARPA in my research related to physics. Most of my postdoctoral fellows received their Ph.D. s in physics, which is somewhat unusual in our discipline of mathematics. But the arrangement has been mutually beneficial, as they have learned some mathematics from me and I have learned some physics from them. I am glad that many of these postdoctoral fellows with physics backgrounds later became prominent professors in mathematics departments at Brandeis, Columbia, Northwestern, Oxford, Tokyo, and other universities. Some of my postdocs have done important work on Calabi-Yau manifolds, and many of them have also helped on this book: Mboyo Esole, Brian Greene, Gary Horowitz, Shinobu Hosono, Tristan Hubsch, Albrecht Klemm, Bong Lian, James Sparks, Li-Sheng Tseng, Satoshi Yamaguchi, and Eric Zaslow. Finally, my former graduate students—including Jun Li, Kefeng Liu, Melissa Liu, Dragon Wang, and Mu-Tao Wang—have made noteworthy contributions in this area as well, some of which will be described in the pages to come.


Odds are I never would have known about this project were it not for Henry Tye, a Cornell physicist (and a friend of Yau’s), who suggested that my coauthor-to-be might steer me to an interesting tale or two. Henry was right about this, as he has been about many other things. I’m grateful to him for helping to launch me on this unexpected journey and for assisting me at many junctures along the way.

As Yau has often said, when you venture down a path in mathematics, you never know where it will end up. The same has been true on the writing end of things. The two of us pretty much agreed during our very first meeting to write a book together, though it took a long while for us to know what the book would be about. In some ways, you might say we didn’t really know that until the book was finished.

Now a few words about the product of this collaboration in an attempt to keep any confusion to a minimum. My coauthor is, of course, a mathematician whose work is central to much of the story related here. Sections of the book in which he was an active participant are generally written in the first person, with the “I” in this case referring to him and him alone. However, even though the book has its fair share of personal narrative, this work should probably not be characterized as Yau’s autobiography or biography. That’s because part of the discussion relates to people Yau doesn’t know (or who died long before he was born), and some of the subject matter described—such as experimental physics and cosmology—lies outside his areas of expertise. These sections, which are written in a third-person voice, are largely based on interviews and other research I conducted.

While the book is, admittedly, an unusual blend of our different backgrounds and perspectives, it seemed to be the best way for the two of us to recount a story that we both considered worth telling. The task of actually getting this tale down on paper relied heavily on my coauthor’s extraordinary grasp of numbers and hopefully profited as well from his collaborator’s facility with words.

One other point on the issue of whether this ought to be regarded as an autobiography: Although the book certainly revolves around Yau’s work, I would suggest that the main character is not Yau himself but rather the class of geometric shapes—so-called Calabi-Yau manifolds—that he helped invent.

Broadly speaking, this book is about understanding the universe through geometry. General relativity, a geometry-based description of gravity that has achieved stunning success in the past century, offers one example. String theory represents an ambitious attempt to go even further, and geometry is vital to this quest, with six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes assuming a special place in this theory. The book tries to present some of the ideas from geometry and physics needed to understand where Calabi-Yau manifolds came from and why some physicists and mathematicians consider them important. The book focuses on various aspects of these manifolds—their defining features, the mathematics that led to their discovery, the reasons string theorists find them intriguing, and the question of whether these shapes hold the key to our universe (and perhaps to other universes as well).

That, at least, is what The Shape of Inner Space is supposed to be about. Whether it lives up to that billing may be open to debate. But there is no doubt in my mind that this book would never have come to fruition without technical, editorial, and emotional support from many people—too many, I’m afraid, to list in full, but I will mention as many as I can.

I received a tremendous amount of help from people already singled out by my coauthor. These include Eugenio Calabi, Simon Donaldson, Brian Greene, Tristan Hubsch, Andrew Strominger, Li-Sheng Tseng, Cumrun Vafa, Edward Witten, and, most of all, Robert Greene, Bong Lian, and Li-Sheng Tseng. The latter three provided me with math and physics tutorials throughout the writing process, exhibiting expository skills and levels of patience that boggle the mind. Robert Greene, in particular, spoke with me a couple of times a week during busy stretches to guide me through thorny bits of differential geometry. Without him, I would have been sunk—many times over. Lian got me started in thinking about geometric analysis, and Tseng helped out immensely with last-minute changes in our ever-evolving manuscript.

The physicists Allan Adams, Chris Beasley, Shamit Kachru, Liam McAllister, and Burt Ovrut fielded questions from me at various times of day and night, carrying me through many a rough patch. Other individuals who were exceedingly generous with their time include Paul Aspinwall, Melanie Becker, Lydia Bieri, Volker Braun, David Cox, Frederik Denef, Robbert Dijkgraaf, Ron Donagi, Mike Douglas, Steve Giddings, Mark Gross, Arthur Hebecker, Petr Horava, Matt Kleban, Igor Klebanov, Albion Lawrence, Andrei Linde, Juan Maldacena, Dave Morrison, Lubos Motl, Hirosi Ooguri, Tony Pantev, Ronen Plesser, Joe Polchinski, Gary Shui, Aaron Simons, Raman Sundrum, Wati Taylor, Bret Underwood, Deane Yang, and Xi Yin.

That is merely the tip of the iceberg, as I’ve also received help from Eric Adelberger, Saleem Ali, Bruce Allen, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Michael Atiyah, John Baez, Thomas Banchoff, Katrin Becker, George Bergman, Vincent Bouchard, Philip Candelas, John Coates, Andrea Cross, Lance Dixon, David Durlach, Dirk Ferus, Felix Finster, Dan Freed, Ben Freivogel, Andrew Frey, Andreas Gathmann, Doron Gepner, Robert Geroch, Susan Gilbert, Cameron Gordon, Michael Green, Paul Green, Arthur Greenspoon, Marcus Grisaru, Dick Gross, Monica Guica, Sergei Gukov, Alan Guth, Robert S. Harris, Matt Headrick, Jonathan Heckman, Dan Hooper, Gary Horowitz, Stanislaw Janeczko, Lizhen Ji, Sheldon Katz, Steve Kleiman, Max Kreuzer, Peter Kronheimer, Mary Levin, Avi Loeb, Feng Luo, Erwin Lutwak, Joe Lykken, Barry Mazur, William McCallum, John McGreevy, Stephen Miller, Cliff Moore, Steve Nahn, Gail Oskin, Rahul Pandharipande, Joaquín Pérez, Roger Penrose, Miles Reid, Nicolai Reshetikhin, Kirill Saraikin, Karen Schaffner, Michael Schulz, John Schwarz, Ashoke Sen, Kris Snibbe, Paul Shellard, Eva Silverstein, Joel Smoller, Steve Strogatz, Leonard Susskind, Yan Soibelman, Erik Swanson, Max Tegmark, Ravi Vakil, Fernando Rodriguez Villegas, Dwight Vincent, Dan Waldram, Devin Walker, Brian Wecht, Toby Wiseman, Jeff Wu, Chen Ning Yang, Donald Zeyl, and others.

Many of the concepts in this book are difficult to illustrate, and we were fortunate to be able to draw on the extraordinary graphic talents of Xiaotian (Tim) Yin and Xianfeng (David) Gu of the Stony Brook Computer Science Department, who were assisted in turn by Huayong Li and Wei Zeng. Additional help on the graphics front was provided by Andrew Hanson (the premier renderer of Calabi-Yau manifolds), John Oprea, and Richard Palais, among others.

I thank my many friends and relatives, including Will Blanchard, John De Lancey, Ross Eatman, Evan Hadingham, Harris McCarter, and John Tibbetts, who read drafts of the book proposal and chapters or otherwise offered advice and encouragement along the way. Both my coauthor and I are grateful for the invaluable administrative assistance provided by Maureen Armstrong, Lily Chan, Hao Xu, and Gena Bursan.

Several books proved to be valuable references. Among them are The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, Euclid’s Window by Leonard Mlodinow, Poetry of the Universe by Robert Osserman, and The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind.

The Shape of Inner Space might never have gotten off the ground were it not for the help of John Brockman, Katinka Matson, Michael Healey, Max Brockman, Russell Weinberger, and others at the Brockman, Inc., literary agency. T. J. Kelleher of Basic Books had faith in our manuscript when others did not, and—with the help of his colleague, Whitney Casser—worked hard to get our book into a presentable form. Kay Mariea, the project editor at Basic Books, shepherded our manuscript through its many stages, and Patricia Boyd provided expert copyediting, teaching me that “the same” and “exactly the same” are exactly the same thing.

Finally, I’m especially grateful for the support from my family members—Melissa, Juliet, and Pauline, along with my parents Lorraine and Marty, my brother Fred, and my sister Sue—who acted as if six-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifolds were the most fascinating thing in the world, not realizing that these manifolds are, in fact, out of this world.



The invention of the telescope, and its steady improvement over the years, helped confirm what has become a truism: There’s more to the universe than we can see. Indeed, the best available evidence suggests that nearly three-fourths of all the stuff of the cosmos lies in a mysterious, invisible form called dark energy. Most of the rest—excluding only the 4 percent composed of ordinary matter that includes us—is called dark matter. And true to form, it too has proved “dark” in just about every respect: hard to see and equally hard to fathom.

The portion of the cosmos we can see forms a sphere with a radius of about 13.7 billion light-years. This sphere is sometimes referred to as a Hubble volume, but no one believes that’s the full extent of the universe. According to the best current data, the universe appears to extend limitlessly, with straight lines literally stretching from here to eternity in every direction we can point.

There’s a chance, however, that the universe is ultimately curved and bounded. But even if it is, the allowable curvature is so slight that, according to some analyses, the Hubble volume we see is just one out of at least one thousand such volumes that must exist. And a recently launched space instrument, the Planck telescope, may reveal within a few years that there are at least one million Hubble volumes out there in the cosmos, only one of which we’ll ever have access to.1 I’m trusting the astrophysicists on this one, realizing that some may quarrel with the exact numbers cited above. One fact, however, appears to be unassailable: What we see is just the tip of the iceberg.

At the other extreme, microscopes, particle accelerators, and various imaging devices continue to reveal the universe on a miniature scale, illuminating a previously inaccessible world of cells, molecules, atoms, and smaller entities. By now, none of this should be all that surprising. We fully expect our telescopes to probe ever deeper into space, just as our microscopes and other tools bring more of the invisible to light.

But in the last few decades—owing to developments in theoretical physics, plus some advances in geometry that I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in—there has been another realization that is even more startling: Not only is there more to the universe than we can see, but there may even be more dimensions, and possibly quite a few more than the three spatial dimensions we’re intimately acquainted with.

That’s a tough proposition to swallow, because if there’s one thing we know about our world—if there’s one thing our senses have told us from our first conscious moments and first groping explorations—it’s the number of dimensions. And that number is three. Not three, give or take a dimension or so, but exactly three. Or so it seemed for the longest time. But maybe, just maybe, there are additional dimensions so small that we haven’t noticed them yet. And despite their modest size, they could be crucial in ways we could not have possibly appreciated from our entrenched, three-dimensional perspective.

While this may be hard to accept, we’ve learned in the past century that whenever we stray far from the realm of everyday experience, our intuition can fail us. If we travel extremely fast, special relativity tells us that time slows down, not something you’re likely to intuit from common sense. If we make an object extremely small, according to the dictates of quantum mechanics, we can’t say exactly where it is. When we do experiments to determine whether the object has ended up behind Door A or Door B, we find it’s neither here nor there, in the sense that it has no absolute position. (And it sometimes may appear to be in both places at once!) Strange things, in other words, can and will happen, and it’s possible that tiny, hidden dimensions are one of them.

If this idea is true, then there might be a kind of universe in the margins—a critical chunk of real estate tucked off to the side, just beyond the reach of our senses. This would be revolutionary in two ways. The mere existence of extra dimensions—a staple of science fiction for more than a hundred years—would be startling enough on its own, surely ranking among the greatest findings in the history of physics. But such a discovery would really be a starting point rather than an end unto itself. For just as a general might obtain a clearer perspective on the battlefield by observing the proceedings from a hilltop or tower and thereby gaining the benefit of a vertical dimension, so too may our laws of physics become more apparent, and hence more readily discerned, when viewed from a higher-dimensional vantage point.

We’re familiar with travel in three basic directions: north or south, east or west, and up or down. (Or, equivalently, left or right, backward or forward, and up or down.) Wherever we go—whether it’s driving to the grocery store or flying to Tahiti—we move in some combination of those three independent directions. So familiar are we with these dimensions that trying to conceive of an additional dimension—and figuring out exactly where it would point—might seem impossible. For a long while, it seemed as if what you see is what you get. In fact, more than two thousand years ago, Aristotle argued as much in his treatise On the Heavens: “A magnitude if divisible one way is a line, if two ways a surface, and if three a body. Beyond these there is no other magnitude, because the three dimensions are all that there are.”2 In A.D. 150, the astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy tried to prove that four dimensions are impossible, insisting that you cannot draw four mutually perpendicular lines. A fourth perpendicular, he contended, would be “entirely without measure and without definition.”3 His argument, however, was less a rigorous proof than a reflection of our inability both to visualize and to draw in four dimensions.

To a mathematician, a dimension is a “degree of freedom”—an independent way of moving in space. A fly buzzing around over our heads is free to move in any direction the skies permit. Assuming there are no obstacles, it has three degrees of freedom. Suppose that fly lands on a parking lot and gets stuck in a patch of fresh tar. While it is temporarily immobilized, the fly has zero degrees of freedom and is effectively confined to a single spot—a zero-dimensional world. But this creature is persistent and, after some struggle, wrests itself free from the tar, though injuring its wing in the process. Unable to fly, it has two degrees of freedom and can roam the surface of the parking lot at will. Sensing a predator—a ravenous frog, perhaps—our hero seeks refuge in a rusted tailpipe lying in the lot. The fly thus has one degree of freedom, trapped at least for now in the one-dimensional or linear world of this narrow pipe.

But is that all there is? Does a fly buzzing through the air, stuck in tar, crawling on the asphalt, or making its way through a pipe include all the possibilities imaginable? Aristotle or Ptolemy would have said yes, but while this may be the case for a not terribly enterprising fly, it is not the end of the story for contemporary mathematicians, who typically find no compelling reason to stop at three dimensions. On the contrary, we believe that to truly understand a concept in geometry, such as curvature or distance, we need to understand it in all possible dimensions, from zero to n, where n can be a very big number indeed. Our grasp of that concept will be incomplete if we stop at three dimensions—the point being that if a rule or law of nature works in a space of any dimension, it’s more powerful, and seemingly more fundamental, than a statement that only applies in a particular setting.

Even if the problem you’re grappling with pertains to just two or three dimensions, you might still secure helpful clues by studying it in a variety of dimensions. Let’s return to our example of the fly flitting about in three-dimensional space, which has three directions in which to move, or three degrees of freedom. Yet let’s suppose another fly is moving freely in that same space; it too has three degrees of freedom, and the system as a whole has suddenly gone from three to six dimensions—with six independent ways of moving. With more flies zigzagging through the space—all moving on their own without regard to the other—the complexity of the system goes up, as does the dimensionality.


On Sale
Sep 7, 2010
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Shing-Tung Yau

About the Author

Shing-Tung Yau has won many awards, including the Fields Medal. He is a professor of mathematics at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Steve Nadis is a Contributing Editor to Astronomy Magazine. He has published articles in Nature, Science, Scientific American, New Scientist, Sky&Telescope, the Atlantic Monthly, and other journals. He has written or contributed to more than two dozen books. A former staff researcher for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Nadis has also been a research fellow at MIT and a consultant to the World Resources Institute, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and WGBH/NOVA. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Learn more about this author

Steve Nadis

About the Author

Steve Nadis, a contributing editor to Discover magazine and a contributing writer to Quanta, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

Shing-Tung Yau is a mathematics professor at Tsinghua University and professor emeritus at Harvard University. The recipient of the Fields Medal, National Medal of Science, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in Beijing. 

This is the fifth book that Nadis and Yau have written together.

Learn more about this author