Nature Celebrates Bizarre Many-Worlds Cosmology
The cover of Nature this week (July 7) looks like a comic book. And well it might: it celebrates the 50th anniversary of one of the weirdest beliefs ever submitted by a physicist: Hugh Everett’s “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. The bottom line is that every time you observe a coin toss or any other event that could go one way or another, the universe splits into two copies: one where the coin comes up heads, and the other where it comes up tails. From that point, the two universes progress along their own separate paths, incommunicado.
Everett himself was concerned only with the mathematical solutions to problems in quantum mechanics (QM) when he published his ideas in 1957, but others quickly explored the bizarre consequences. The parallel universes in the Back to the Future movies were nothing compared to this. The many-worlds interpretation postulates an almost infinite number of universes. New ones spring into existence every time a quantum event is observed. There is an invisible multiverse out there beyond our wildest imaginations, where every possibility is realized. Though you could never meet them like Marty McFly did, you have uncountable copies of yourself who went left when you went right, who got the accident when you survived, who passed when you failed, branching off ad infinitum.
If you think nobody could possibly believe such things, Mark Buchanan wrote in his introductory article that the majority of physicists have been slowly coming around to this view.1 Max Tegmark in his essay agreed; “after being widely dismissed as too crazy during the 1970s and 1980s, it has gradually gained more acceptance,” he said, adding that by 1999 it was outstripping other interpretations: “I believe the upward trend is clear.”2 The lead editorial also celebrated this idea that “neatly highlights the intersection between science and science fiction.”3
Speaking of science fiction, Nature also gave four science fiction writers a forum to expound their views on parallel universes, weird life, aliens, evolution and religion.4 Some of them wrote favorably of science fiction stories that mocked Christianity, but all of them treated evolution as a fact. Agreeing with another author who thought Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos was a good example of how science fiction could teach science, Peter Watts wrote,
Peter: I’ve got to second that. I think that was Vonnegut’s best: it got evolution right. The idea that what is left of our civilization a million years hence is that when one of our seal-like descendents farts on the beach, the others just laugh and laugh – that’s a wonderfully ironic and potent summation of human achievement.
Paul McAuley spoke of the legacy of H. G. Wells:
Paul McAuley: Evolution is a keynote that runs through most of H. G. Wells’s science fiction. The human race was going to slip down into unthinking Morlocks and Eloi or we could continue to rise and become the big-brained, small-limbed creatures that are the kind of epitome of science-fiction clich� of future man. Wells was taught by Huxley, had a zoology degree and so on, so he had a good grounding in it. But in Wells’s time, evolution was some blind force. We’ve now got the opportunity to start directing evolution ourselves.
Merging that idea with Everett’s, this would imply that the spun-off clones of you and me in all the many worlds out there are steering evolution in completely different directions.
Each of the authors, naturally, considered science fiction visionary, imaginative, and inspiring. Here’s how Joan Slonczewski viewed her favorite biological moment in science fiction literature:
Joan: For me, if it’s a defining moment, it’s the moment in Vonnegut’s Galapagos in which the narrator of the story has the opportunity to decide whether to stick around for the next million years of evolution or to be taken off to heaven. And he decides that observing the next million years, no matter what, no matter how bad it is, that the next million years of human evolution are more compelling to him than going off to heaven. That to me is an inspiring moment.
1Mark Buchanan, “Many worlds: See me here, see me there,” Nature 448, 15-17 (5 July 2007) | doi:10.1038/448015a; Published online 4 July 2007.
2Max Tegmark, “Many lives in many worlds,” Nature 448, 23-24 (5 July 2007) | doi:10.1038/448023a.
3Editorial, “Parallel worlds galore,” Nature 448, 1 (5 July 2007) | doi:10.1038/448001a.
4News feature, “The biologists strike back,” Nature 448, 18-21 (5 July 2007) | doi:10.1038/448018a.
Folks, these are the nutcases who rule the universities and the science journals. Just thought you should know. You could not possibly point to any religious view more bizarre than the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. These people do not just think of these things for entertainment, like all those of us who enjoy a good sci-fi movie for the fun of it. They actually believe these things in their heart of hearts. And then, the same issue of Nature printed a letter from a scientist claiming intelligent design was religion.
Quantum mechanics is good, hard, useful science, as far as it goes in helping engineers build lasers and TV sets and microwave ovens. But there is another side to quantum mechanics that takes its counterintuitive observations and conundrums and derives a complete cosmology and world view – a religion. Why not just admit there are limitations to what we can understand, and just utilize the findings for technology? No way: some feel obligated to extrapolate the behavior of subatomic particles into a theory of everything (TOE). Well, the many-worlds view stubbed its TOE so hard, most of us are hopping in pain just thinking about it. A reasonable person would conclude that the solution is worse than the problem.
Speculating about what Q.M. means is fine. Some prefer Schroedinger’s collapse of the wave function. Some believe in hidden variables. Everett and his disciples played with the idea that both outcomes of quantum events are realized. OK, but at the end of the day, you don’t need to believe that real copies of you are branching off into parallel universes as fast as you observe things. If you choose to do so, don’t criticize those who think everything must have a cause, and design demands a Designer. Call your weird ideas what they are: science fiction.