Parallel Worlds: How Human History Turns on the Tilt of the Multiverse

Andy Murray’s unexpectedly strong start against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon 2012 final put the Daily Telegraph columnist Matthew Norman in a science-fiction mood. Contrasting Murray with the doubles champion Jonny Marray — who still rents a flat and drives a Ford Fiesta, despite holding a Grand Slam title — the Daily Mail opined: ‘The stark reality is that the two champions, who share a passion for tennis, live and work in a parallel universe.’

Where did this idea of parallel universes come from? Science fiction is an obvious source: in the 1960s, Captain Kirk met his ‘other self’ in aStar Trek episode called ‘Mirror, Mirror’, while Philip K Dick’s novelThe Man in the High Castle (1963) imagined an alternate world in which the US was a Nazi puppet state. But there’s also science fact. In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger proposed his famous thought experiment involving a cat in a box whose life or death is connected to a quantum event, and in 1957 the American physicist Hugh Everett developed his ‘many worlds’ theory, which proposed that the act of opening Schrödinger’s box entailed a splitting of universes: one where the cat is alive, and another where it is dead.

Recently, physicists have been boldly endorsing a ‘multiverse’ of possible worlds. Richard Feynman, for example, said that when light goes from A to B it takes every possible path, but the one we see is the quickest because all the others cancel out. In The Universe in a Nutshell(2001), Stephen Hawking went with a sporting multiverse, declaring it ‘scientific fact’ that there exists a parallel universe in which Belize won every gold medal at the Olympic Games. For Hawking, the universe is a kind of ‘cosmic casino’ whose dice rolls lead to widely divergent paths: we see one, but all are real.

At the far reaches of this hidden history is Democritus, who believed the universe to be made of atoms moving in an infinite void. Over time, they would combine and recombine in every possible way: the world we see around us is just one arrangement among many that are all certain to appear.

In the 1920s, Benjamin embarked on a study of 19th-century Paris that would become The Arcades Project, a mass of quotation and commentary that remained in a fragmentary and disordered state when he died in 1940. One offshoot was the essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in which Benjamin comments on the rise of gambling and speculation, the way that each throw of the dice represents a new start, a new world. He compares this to the factory conveyor belt, where each component is brand-new yet identical to the one before. The machine operator spends a day endlessly repeating some simple physical gesture, then finds amusement in doing the same thing at a slot machine. The mechanised world, like capitalism itself, is an apparent offer of constantly renewed hope, when really the one thing it must produce in order to perpetuate itself is a sense of constantly increased need.

In the course of his studies, Benjamin discovered Baudelaire’s particular fascination with Blanqui, and this is perhaps how, in the late 1930s, Benjamin came to read L’éternité par les astres, writing excitedly to his fellow philosopher Max Horkheimer about it. According to Benjamin, Blanqui’s theory represents a tragic capitulation to everything the old revolutionaries fought against — a vision of bourgeois existence remodelled as cosmology, with replicated worlds like mass-produced consumer goods, inspiring passivity and boredom.

For Jorge Luis Borges, Blanqui’s vision is heavenly — like the archive he describes in his short story ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941), a building that contains every possible book among its randomly generated texts. What Borges never considered in his story is how many millions of light years any poor soul would need to travel in order to find as much as a page worth reading. To any real inhabitant, the library would be indistinguishable from chaos, and it is only from the lofty vantage point of literary contemplation that the place assumes order. For Benjamin, however, the multiverse is not an intellectual parlour game, but a damning reflection of the society that produces it.

Given that war is the archetypal splitting point for alternative history, perhaps the threat of fascism accounts for the rise in popularity of parallel-world stories in the 1940s, sometimes as wish-fulfilling escapism, as in the film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or else as warnings of alternatives that could so easily happen. In Borges’s short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940), for example, an invented world causes reality itself to cave in. A year later, Borges again worked the theme of branching realities, in a wartime spy story called ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’. When the American physicist Seth Lloyd met Borges at a Cambridge reception in 1983, he asked him if he was aware that this story eerily prefigured Hugh Everett’s concept of many worlds. Borges had never heard of it, but said that it didn’t surprise him that physics sometimes followed literature. After all, physicists are readers, too (of literature, and of history).

The theories of Everett, Feynman and others are highly technical, but physicists looking to explain them in ordinary language draw on the same common stock of image and metaphor as everyone else, and that stock has been around for a very long time. Feynman’s idea about light taking every possible path is essentially Leibniz’s, only without the need for God. That said, modern-day optimism is no longer a belief that all things were created for the best; it’s the belief that in the cosmic lottery, anyone can be a winner, whether you’re Andy Murray or just buying a lottery ticket.

After training as a theoretical physicist, I took up the harmless occupation of writing novels while many of my contemporaries went into finance. And look where they got us. Optimism is all very well, but sometimes scientists need to be reminded that ‘fact’ is a word to be handled with care.

This article has been excerpted with permission from Aeon Magazine. To read in its entirety, head here.


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