This is an article I posted to alt.music.tmbg sometime over the summer of 1998, and it has been minorly edited since then. It is an interpretation of They Might Be Giants’ somewhat famous song, “Particle Man”.
10/10/2001: I apologize for the presentation and tone of this interpretation. The idea that Particle Man shares many elements with Flatland should be clear despite all the opinions I tossed into the mess. Maybe some day I’ll go back and revise this, but for now, tread warily.
So a long time ago I came up with this interp of this catchy song.
It was a dark and stormy night, after I had read E. Abbots Flatland,
and I was listening to Flood, when it hit me.
The short version: Particle man is based off of E. Abbots Flatland.
The Long Version:
As I don’t have the book available, I’ll have to summarize to the best of my
First of all, the book is about perspectives and understanding. As I
recall, the narrative opens with 2d beings observing a 1d being, which is
mostly irrelevant for the remainder of the plot, except as a contrast
against how the beings in the story thing. Then, a square in the 2d world
is living his peaceful life, when a sphere from 3d world comes down to 2d
world and takes the square up to the 3d world, where the scope of the square
world is broadened. The square sees the possibilities, and asks the sphere
to take him to the 4d world. The sphere of course, *KNOWS* there’s no such
thing as a 4th dimension, gets mad at the square, and chucks him back down
In 2d, the square tries to explain to the other squares about the next
dimension, but of course, every square *KNOWS* there’s no such thing as a
3rd dimension, and so the squares ostracized their fellow square.
Sound like society in general? it should. This is a really great narrative
for another view on society and it’s interactions… and it even has a bit
of 19th century theory on Dimensions.
Now then, on to the interp. The first thing to realize, is that two points
can make a line, which is one dimensional. So, the minimum number of points
required to create a two dimensional shape is 3, which makes a triangle. A
square was used in Flatland, for some silly reason, but if you replace the
square with triangles in the story, things begin to make more sense….
now then, the line by line.
“Particle man, particle man / Doing the things a particle can / What’s he
like? It’s not important / Particle man / Is he a dot, or is he a speck? /
When he’s underwater does he get wet? / Or does the water get him instead? /
Nobody knows, Particle man”
This entire first bit is about the 2d being observing the 1d being. the
particle is the 1d being, who is going about it’s own business and
completely unaware of the higher dimension observing it. The individual
bits are relatively self explanatory, and I’ll save you all the effort of
trying to understand my haphazard style of explaining things.
“Triangle man, Triangle man / Triangle man hates particle man / They have a
fight, Triangle wins / Triangle man”
Triangle man is the everytriangle. This is not the triangle who was taken
to the 3d realm, but is instead the other, mob minded triangles who don’t
think for themselves. He doesn’t like anything that isn’t him. He
doesn’t know about the 3d world, but he does know about 1d… and because 1d
is not 2d, it is not as good, and 2d is about to stomp on 1d without
incredibly much effort.
“Universe man, Universe man”
Is the sphere, the 3d being.
“Size of the entire universe man”
Consider a 3d being in a 2d world. A 3d being is composed of many 2d
subworlds, basically. kind of abstract, but it makes sense to me… a
universe is composed of many galaxies…a galaxy is 2d, a universe is 3d,
for the sake of this interp.
“Usually kind to smaller man”
For the most part, this particular sphere didn’t do anything mean to the 2d
beings… he only grew angry when the triangle, who we haven’t met yet,
asks about the next dimension.
“He’s got a watch with a minute hand, Millennium hand and an eon hand”
3 watch hands. 3 dimensional being. Groks intimately the meanings of the
hands, or the dimensions, but doesn’t grok anymore.
“When they meet it’s a happy land / Powerful man, universe man”
When the hero triangle, who we still havenae met yet, is taken by the sphere
to 3d land, the triangle understands and is overjoyed with his revelation..
and asks for the next dimension. As I’ve said, the sphere gets upset, and
with his power, sends the triangle back down to 2d land.
“Person man, person man”
At last! Our hero triangle!
“Hit on the head with a frying pan”
This is *AFTER* the encounter with the sphere has taken place, and our poor
hero is already back in 2d land.
As far as any of his fellow triangles can tell, he musta been hit on the
head pretty hard, because he is ranting and raving about some greater
dimension than two… What an absurd idea! More than two dimensions?
And the other angle: Person mans revelation was like being smacked on the
head with a frying pan. suddenly seeing everything in a new light….. a
new world, with new dimensions to explore! too bad none of his friends
“Lives his life in a garbage can”
and so his friends ostracize him. If he’s gonna keep making a fool out of
himself, talking about this “3rd dimension”, then we’re not gonna associate
with him. Sounds like our society, eh?
“Is he depressed or is he a mess?”
What *IS* wrong with this guy?
Why on *EARTH* is he so adamant about his silly ideas?
“Does he feel totally worthless?”
Then he begins to question himself. Is he really insane? Did that happen?
IS there really a third dimension? is he as worthless as his friends have
made out? He gives in to societal pressure and stops clinging to what he
knows to be true, because it hurts too much.
“Who came up with person man?”
What a poor individual! So human, and yet so poor.
“Degraded man, person man”
Person’s status in flatland has been significantly reduced since his
rantings. He is now basically a joke to anyone in flatland.
“Triangle man, triangle man / Triangle man hates person man / They have a
fight, triangle wins / Triangle man “
And then our society returns. Our mob returns, and sees this poor
whimpering soul, believing in what he knew, and beats the crap outta him.
I love this place!