Quantum Universes

Is this the best of all possible worlds?

The question was first lit in the nervous system of German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in an attempt to solve the problem of evil.  Clearly, not one to shirk the difficult questions, Leibniz’ thinking went something like this: if God is good, omnipotent and omniscient, how come there is so much suffering and injustice in the world?  Fair point.

Leibniz’ solution in many ways pre-empted a science fictional obsession that was to follow.  He made God a kind of ‘optimizer’.  God simply chose from a host of all original possibilities.  And since God is good, this world must be the best of all possible worlds.  Hmmm.  I’m sure there’s a loophole in there somewhere.

Then came quantum mechanics.

The notion that our Universe is merely one of many is a facet of the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ of the mysteries of quantum theory. Propounded by physicists such as John Wheeler, and popularised by writers like Paul Davies, the theory goes further.  It imagines an infinite number of parallel universes, making up a ‘multiverse’ that together comprise all of physical reality.  Blimey.

Not only that, but such a multiverse contains all possible Earthly histories and all possible physical universes.  Head hurting?  Don’t worry; it’s natural.  In fact, quantum supremo John Wheeler once said, “If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it”.  Sorted.

In science fiction, such parallel universes may also be called ‘other dimensions’, ‘alternate universes’, ‘quantum universes’, ‘parallel worlds’, or even ‘alternate realities’.  Indeed, the idea that other worlds lie in parallel to ours is one of the oldest in speculative fiction.

At first, authors were slow to realise the potential extravagance in all this.  The most distinguished exception, of course, is Lewis Carroll’s 1865 story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose heroine pops into an alternate reality via a rabbit hole.

A notable early attempt to describe a parallel world with alternative laws from the physics of our own is Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884).  Abbott’s reality is one in which there are only two dimensions, rather than the usual three, assuming we ignore time as the fourth (HG Wells had not yet dreamt it up!).

Phillip Jose Farmer’s Sail On!  Sail On! (1952) describes an alternate 1492AD in which the Earth is flat.  This other-world physics is such that Columbus sails over the edge of the world into Earth orbit, never to return from his mission.  Simply brilliant.

To be sure, Phillip Jose Farmer is something of a parallel world mastermind.  Another of his tales seems like a whimsical perspective on Leibniz’ original idea.  The Unreasoning Mask (1981) features a multiverse, each universe contained within a different cell of the body of God.  The only means of travel between alternative universes is through the cell walls, which is wounding to the growing body of the still infant God.

The main trouble with the ‘best of all possible worlds’ approach, from Leibniz on, is that authors very often depict dystopias thereby promoting passivity.  Our world is far better, so why change things?

Cosmologists David Deutsch and Max Tegmark are among the theoreticians who believe that quantum universes could actually exist.  In a 2003 issue of Scientific American, Tegmark calculated that our Milky Way galaxy has a twin, in which there is a twin Earth, which in turn contains a twin of you.  Yeah, sure.

No doubt there’s also a twin of this website.  Come of think of it, if the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ of reality is true, then in some parallel world this website will win a Webby award.  And also not win it.

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