Parallel universes
October 21, 2002 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Parallel universes Alternate universes may exist besides our own in some ghostly manner. Various science-fiction series explore parallel universes, but what do serious physicists think? Hugh Everett III's doctoral thesis outlines a controversial theory in which the universe at every instant branches into countless parallel worlds. Physicist Andrei Linde's theory of self-reproducing universes implies that new universes are being created all the time through a budding process. Stephen Hawking's quantum cosmology also suggests the possibility of other universes connected by wormholes. Some scientists feel that the famous photon double slit experiments proves the existence of parallel universes in which a photon from one universe interacts with a photon from another. Black hole theory suggests that black holes may be portals to parallel universes.
    Science-fiction stories about parallel universes always delight the mind. Two of my favorite SF novels on parallel universes are Heinlein's Job and Number of the Beast. Several others intrigue me, such as The Neoreality Series, Diaspora, and Parallelities. Science books on the subject include a famous book by David Deutsch.
    Do you have any favorite books on parallel universes or parallel realities, fiction or nonfiction? What do you think? No doubt, scientists and science-fiction authors will continue to explore the concept in the decades to come.
posted by Morphic (64 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I once advocated the following theory:

We can process information along three cardinal dimensions: Height, Width, and Length (XYZ axes). Each "universe" is made up of these three dimensions, with matter somewhere along them. "Time" is our perception of movement from universe to universe, from a universe at which something is Here to where it is There. We move in a single direction along the fourth axis. If we had increased movement abilities, we could jump along the fourth axis (time travel), or the fifth axis (parallel universes). There were an infinite number of parallel universes, just as there was no spacial limit to the X, Y, or Z axes.

I came up with that theory when I was nine years old. I never did figure out what the sixth dimension was.
posted by oissubke at 2:42 PM on October 21, 2002

Favorite books about parallel universes? Sure, The Man in the High Castle and some of the novels of Harry Turtledove.

It's a great gimmick for a novel. However, I doubt we'll ever move between the universes. Imagine the people moving about trying to find that "perfect place to live."

Ah, a world where I'm free from the memory of disco.
posted by ?! at 2:42 PM on October 21, 2002

Ah, a world MADE OF DISCO!
posted by luriete at 2:46 PM on October 21, 2002

I'm 99% convinced that a parallel version of me and Sabrina Lloyd are able to hop randomly from one universe to another. It makes for some pretty exciting adventures. Plus, I get to hang with Sabrina Lloyd.
posted by willnot at 2:49 PM on October 21, 2002

You know, when thinking about a "multiverse" (usually under the influence of at least one chemical, possibly twelve or more) I always came up with two notions:

The first, that if infinity *really* means there's a universe where everything is exactly the same except the fact that I chose to wear argyle socks instead of tube socks on February 23, 1998, then infinity is *really* inefficient.

I then followed that notion with the possibility that perhaps the multi- or universe is trying out every single possibility infinity implies because none of this has happened yet ... we're all just possibilities.

I usually pass out at that point.
posted by WolfDaddy at 2:50 PM on October 21, 2002

I like Farmer's World of Tiers series. The idea that I could create a "pocket universe" appeals to me immensely.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:55 PM on October 21, 2002

i remember reading job, but other than that... i'm drawing a blank here :D

lathe of heaven is pretty good! oh and quarantine.
posted by kliuless at 2:57 PM on October 21, 2002

My fave is Larry Niven's All the Myriad Ways - and like him, I don't like the idea that it might not make a difference which way you choose to do something simpy because all the other yous out there will have already chosen every which way ....
posted by Jos Bleau at 2:58 PM on October 21, 2002

I was thinking about this the other day. People give the example of flipping a coin, where two universes are created depending on if it lands on heads or tails. But isn't this really only the case on the quantum level? I mean, The state of the universe is entirely dependent on the state of the universe an instant before. When I flip a coin, it's being acted on by all the forces surrounding it, the way I flip it, the movement of air around it. There's no chance. Given the exact same set of forces, the coin would land the exact same way.

So there might be different universes created based on the actions of photons, but on our level of interaction with the universe, I think we're pretty much locked into the course that we're on. That's what makes sense to me, anyway.

btw, what got me thinking about all this is a wonderful trilogy of books by Philip Pullman called His Dark Materials. I couldn't possibly recommend them more highly.
posted by GeekAnimator at 3:06 PM on October 21, 2002

Favorite books:
Flatland and
The Boy who Could Reverse Himself (I'm pretty sure of the title, but am having no luck at Amazon. A high school boy steps into his locker and joins the 4th dimension. One time, he takes a friend in with him...)
posted by whatzit at 3:09 PM on October 21, 2002

Life imitates art? Hugh Everett III's impossibly labyrinthine idea of the universe suspiciously resembles Jorge Luis Borges's 'The Garden of Forking Paths'. Every conceivable permutation of time and reality coexists each in its own equally real dimension.
posted by dgaicun at 3:12 PM on October 21, 2002

The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein was a favorite of mine on this subject.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:14 PM on October 21, 2002

How about movies, like The One with Jet Li? I would love to join forces with the other me's and become god! Or maybe just win the lottery next time the prize money reaches $100M!
posted by billsaysthis at 3:23 PM on October 21, 2002

I agree with GeekAnimator 100%. Those books were amazing. I recommend them as well.
posted by krazykity16 at 3:26 PM on October 21, 2002

I already refuted the idea of parallel universes in another universe.
posted by salmacis at 3:46 PM on October 21, 2002

Ring around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak was a book I read in high school I remember enjoying. He has quite a few other books worth checking out too.
posted by Bonzai at 3:46 PM on October 21, 2002

Joey Michaels: I think I read that book when I was about 15, and hated it so much I've never touched Heinlein since. It made Jeffrey Archer's prose look good.
posted by salmacis at 3:48 PM on October 21, 2002

Do you like pancakes? Perhaps, in some other world, you don't.

Also, Amber (and some short stories).
posted by bonehead at 3:51 PM on October 21, 2002

Myself, I *love* Greg Egans Quarantine
posted by jkaczor at 3:52 PM on October 21, 2002 [1 favorite]

...damn, Kliuless beat me to it...
posted by jkaczor at 3:53 PM on October 21, 2002

Timeline by Michael Crichton
posted by reverendX at 3:59 PM on October 21, 2002

GeekAnimator: This is not technically true. The uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a given particle precisely, at the same instant.

At the macroscopic level this presents no difficulty, because we can measure the positions and momentums of many billions of particles (like those in a coin) simultaneously. But this uncertainty means that there is always an infintesimally small chance that an object cannot behave as classical physics says it will.

Einstein spent most of his life after general relativity trying (unsuccessfully) to disprove the principle. He refused to believe that "God would play dice with the universe."
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 4:00 PM on October 21, 2002

posted by bonehead at 4:06 PM on October 21, 2002

I much prefer the idea that up until the moment of each decision, there are infinite probabilities (universes), and then when that decision is made, all other probabilities collapse. Like Schrodinger's cat: Up until the box is opened, the cat is alive and dead, or alive-dead. This indeterminacy is relieved when the box is opened.

But then, where would SciFi and paranormality be without cute misapprehensions of physics?
posted by mikrophon at 4:11 PM on October 21, 2002

whatzit -
The book you're referring to is"The Boy Who Reversed Himself," a great book, although I'm partial to "The Man Who Folded Himself." Perhaps in a parallel universe it would be your favorite as well?
posted by iamck at 4:16 PM on October 21, 2002

but i ask you: what about the universe where everything is made outta disco?
posted by luriete at 4:18 PM on October 21, 2002

...damn, Kliuless beat me to it...

not in that other reality tho, h0h0 :D oh and split infinity natch.

On the technological, decadent world of Proton, someone was trying to destroy Stile, serf and master Gamesman. His only escape lay in Phaze, a world totally ruled by magic. Soon he learned that his alternate self had already been murdered, and that he was next. On Proton, his fate depended on winning the great Games. On Phaze, he must master magic to survive. And if he used any magic at all, his friends were determined to kill him at once!
posted by kliuless at 4:22 PM on October 21, 2002

Thanks for your extra sleuthing, iamck. I'm a couple thousand miles from my copy. But yech, they certainly chose a hideous new cover! I hadn't heard of the second book you mention, though I'll be sure to check it out now...
posted by whatzit at 4:25 PM on October 21, 2002

My favorite parallel universe books are Stephen King's Dark Tower series. And I just finished Black House, which is Stephen King and Peter Straub's sequel to The Talisman, both of which I really enjoyed.

I'm having a hard time not making some self-effacing comment about liking Stephen King novels and I think I'm succeeding heroically, no?
posted by jennyb at 4:37 PM on October 21, 2002

Rumfuddle by Jack Vance.
Best. Parallel. Universe. Story. Ever.
posted by y2karl at 4:52 PM on October 21, 2002

I'm more partial to the alternate-history type of parallel universe, such as Orson Scott Card's novel Pastwatch or L. Sprague de Camp's short story "Aristotle and the Gun."

Oh, and Alfred Bester's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" is always good for a laugh.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:10 PM on October 21, 2002

salmacis: I think I read that book when I was about 15, and hated it so much I've never touched Heinlein since. It made Jeffrey Archer's prose look good.

Yes, sometimes Heinlein's writing is the sci-fi equivalent of poorly written soft-porn, but I love it so much. Not in that way.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:16 PM on October 21, 2002

theory in which the universe at every instant branches into countless parallel worlds.

If this were true you'd never be able to predict effect from cause, as every effect would occur. All but one universe would be utter chaos.
posted by krisjohn at 5:24 PM on October 21, 2002

No discussion of parallel universes would be complete without a mention of Dr. Robert Foot's mirror matter theory. Simply put, this theory asserts that we share space with an invisible 'mirror universe' with which we can only interact via gravity. An interesting idea, and one for which there may be some experimental support.
posted by Bletch at 5:33 PM on October 21, 2002

My crackpot thoughts: All universes exist and our perception of reality is basically the average of all possibilites. Very similar to the concept of an electron not having a definite location, just a cloud of possibilities. Our perception resolves reality at a particular moment. That moment is defined by everything that occured before it.
posted by quirked at 5:39 PM on October 21, 2002

Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is one of my longtime favourites: it examines uses and abuses of technology and explores boundaries of gender and race. plus, it's just smart and funny.
posted by capiscum at 6:10 PM on October 21, 2002

i don't think any of this is weird at all. it's fairly obvious if you think about the alternative. if there's only one universe in which (theoretically) we could take into account everything that ever happened that would mean that everything that is going to happen would be accurately predictable every time. if there were no uncertainty, and it were possible to calculate all the variables, you could predict everything, like the coin flipping. this would mean that none of us has any free will. if you knew all the psychological and environmental variables that led up to a decision that one person was going to make, you'd know everytime which decision that would be.

that would suck.
posted by magikeye at 6:15 PM on October 21, 2002

Do any of the Hitchhiker's series count? They do have the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.....
The Halloween Tree is my favorite, and a breeze to read, as it is aimed at young adults.
posted by oflinkey at 6:32 PM on October 21, 2002

Even tho it's superstitious, I can't help but think the ancients who imagineered The Vedas must'a been onto sumpin'. Mathematical elegance and a Causal Ocean? Chops for doin' it old skool.
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:04 PM on October 21, 2002

I've always been fond of Moorcock's Multiverse.
posted by mikhail at 7:20 PM on October 21, 2002

This thread is a lot of fun -- most of my non-school reading was sf until I went off to college (I still have a huge collection of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in my dad's garage), so this is bringing back all sorts of memories. In addition to the works mentioned above, let's not forget the very first alternate-world story, Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time" (Astounding Jun ’34); Stanley Weinbaum's "The Worlds of If" (Wonder Stories Aug ’35), L. Sprague de Camp's 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall", and Fritz Leiber's Destiny Times Three. Oh, and Ward Moore's wonderful Bring the Jubilee, a must-read for Civil War buffs!
posted by languagehat at 7:26 PM on October 21, 2002

Yelling at Nothing: This is not technically true. The uncertainty principle states that it is impossible to measure both the position and momentum of a given particle precisely, at the same instant.

GeekAnimator might be talking about fate, which is an animal for which science hasn't been able to decide on a color for yet. There's always the possibility that the uncertainty principle is just a vault door that keeps us from figuring out the combination to our futures. We can never say with 100% percent certainty that a particle is in a certain place at a certain time, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't already have a pre-ordained place to go.

BTW, I don't believe in God, and I don't want to introduce that guy to this discussion. I'm only saying that just because we can never precicely predict the future doesn't mean that it wasn't following a plan.
posted by Samsonov14 at 7:35 PM on October 21, 2002

Don't forget the Libertarian mulitverses of L. Neil Schmidt's The Probablity Broach.
posted by Alwin at 7:51 PM on October 21, 2002

It seems to me that the Celtic concept of the Otherworld, inhabited by the Sidhe, Tuatha de Dannan, fairies, marvelous beings of various sorts, deities, the dead, might well qualify as a parallel universe. The folkloric version is preserved in medieval works like the fifteenth century romance of Sir Orfeo , and the Child ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer.
posted by medievalist at 7:57 PM on October 21, 2002

If our universe works like some astronomers recent theories, expanding and contracting, (we are currently expanding), or exploding and imploding, with the big bang being the nadir of each implosion and the beginning of each explosion, then it seems only logical, that at those moments, the universal clock would reset itself, aligning each expansion and contraction on a parallel plane.
posted by vermilion at 8:18 PM on October 21, 2002

I've always been fond of Moorcock...

posted by ttrendel at 10:18 PM on October 21, 2002

What if all the other universes are the same? Or maybe most of them are the same. If there are an infinite number of universes it doesn't mean that you exist in any other one.
posted by jeblis at 11:04 PM on October 21, 2002

What has always bothered me is what the univereses are made of?

Where has all that matter/energy/dimensions come from? Its a great sci-fi trick, but any budding scientists out there help me?

Any of Dick's stuff, Pullman and my owen, as yet aunwritten masterpiece.
posted by lerrup at 11:34 PM on October 21, 2002

What has always bothered me is what the univereses are made of?

Where has all that matter/energy/dimensions come from? Its a great sci-fi trick, but any budding scientists out there help me?

Any of Dick's stuff, Pullman and my own, as yet unwritten masterpiece.
posted by lerrup at 11:34 PM on October 21, 2002

That's a little difficult to say, Lerrup. What do you mean where did it come from? If other universes are like our universe, they came from mysterious, explosive creation events. As to the source of that energy, well that is a question no one can answer yet. Or do you mean where does the energy for universes to split come from, as per the Many Worlds interpretation? In the case of infinite static universes that we perceive as a single universe changing in time, much like a movie of still frames, ala the theories of Julian Barbour, then the energy is the same big bang energy that created the universe. If you are more traditional with respect to time, then the source of that energy does represent a problem, at least to off-the-cuff theorizing. The answer would require a better understanding of the structure of the multiverse and a better understanding of the basic nature of energy.

Someone mentioned above that the "every possible effect" idea would end up creating a lot of universes that were chaotic and did not follow cause and effect. This is not the case as the theory has been explained in any of its popular forms. The universes that are created represent valid effects of a single cause. Their differences are not caused by different "effects" in the way you might think of them, but by different effects that are at all probable under the laws of physics. The differences are caused by quantum uncertainty, not changes in the laws of physics. No universe would exist for an impossible effect of a cause in the current theories (conjectures) as I understand them. (uiverses with different laws is a whole different can of worms, but still not "chaotic.")

In my personal opinion, any answer to the universes question will come hand in hand with a better understanding of time.

The expansion and contraction idea has had a rough time recently, with the discovery that the expansion is accelerating. It’s not time to scrap it, but more needs to be understood. One of my favorite "fun ideas" was Wheeler's proposal that all electrons in the universe are one and the same particle, simply bouncing back and forth in time and interacting with itself. That would solve the "where does the energy come from" dilemma, and possibly account for the big bang as well. Like shining a video camera at a monitor displaying the output, on the edges you get a picture, but at the center there is just pure white. Infinite energy (well, an approximation of infinite energy, of course. You can’t power the world with a video camera and a TV), which is what the big bang looked like.
posted by Nothing at 3:24 AM on October 22, 2002

I always believed in an infinite number of universes. I reckon that there are these universes where I invented a machine to travel between universes, and at least one universe where I invent the machine, and travel to this universe, the universe I am currently writing from. And I've always wondered about this doppleganger of mine, why he hasn't turned up yet. Any day now, I reckon. Any day now.
posted by seanyboy at 5:12 AM on October 22, 2002

whatzit: The Boy Who Reversed Himself. I loved William Sleator growing up. A more recent book that I liked about parallel universes is Hominids by Robert J Sawyer.

In many ways, the "Many Universes" interpretation of quantum mechanics is the most consistent, however it's a little too fantastical for the mainstream to give it credence.
posted by mfbridges at 5:54 AM on October 22, 2002

hey wow a sequel to interstellar pig is out this month! also fritz leiber's the big time doesn't really deal with parallel universes per se, but a malleable time-line with its own theory of causality that i thought was pretty interesting, 'the conservation of reality':
"Most of us enter the Change World with the false metaphysic that the slightest change in the past--a grain of dust misplaced--will transform the whole future. It is a long while before we accept with our minds as well as our intellects the law of the Conservation of Reality that when the past is changed, the future changes barely enough to adjust, barely enough to admit the new data. The Change Winds meet maximum resistance always...

"Note how the gap left by Rome's collapse was filled by the imperialistic and Christianized Germans. Only an expert Demon historian can tell the difference in most ages between the former Latin and the present Gothic Catholic Church. As you yourself, sir, said of Greece, it is as if an old melody were shifted into a slightly different key. In the wake of the Big Change, cultures and individuals are transposed, it's true, yet in the main they continue much as they were, except for the usual scattering of unfortunate but statistically meaningless accidents."


"Nations are as equal as so many madmen or drunkards, and I'll drink dead drunk the man who disputes me. Hear reason: nations are not so puny as to shrivel and vanish at the first tampering with their past, no, nor with the tenth. Nations are monsters, boy, with guts of iron and nerves of brass. Waste not your pity on them."
oh and the slow birds :D
posted by kliuless at 7:20 AM on October 22, 2002

I enjoyed 'Number of the Beast' but I also would add the series universe story by Pohl Anderson 'Tau Zero'
posted by mss at 7:26 AM on October 22, 2002

The Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson (which is a sorta kinda sequel to the classic Illuminatus! Trilogy).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:17 AM on October 22, 2002

Keith Laumer's Imperium series, especially "The Other Side of Time"; Gibson & Sterling's "The Difference Engine"; Newman's "Anno Dracula" series; and Byrne & Newman's "Back in the USSA". I'm not sure if purists would count the last three precisely as parallel universes, since their alternate realities are shaped strongly by the incorporation of fictional characters as well as real ones who took different historical paths.
posted by raygirvan at 8:24 AM on October 22, 2002

Did anyone see the movie "Donnie Darko"? Yowza.

It sneakily deals with the subjects of time-travel and pocket/parallel universes. I had the BrainThrobs for a week afterwards tying to figure out what the frigg was going on.

A great movie.
posted by hughbot at 9:04 AM on October 22, 2002

This is slightly off-topic, but my Masters thesis was on multiply connected universe topologies. Imagine the universe as a finite box instead of a infinite space. If you travel out one side of the box, you enter thru another side. The entering side wouldn't neccessarily be opposite the leaving side. And the sides could be rotated so that if you went out near the top-left corner of a side, you could come in near the bottom-right corner of a different side. Also, the box didn't have to be a cube. Or even a traditional 6-sided box - just some shape that can be tiled without leaving spaces between the tiles. Also, the overall geometry of the universe covering space dictated the possible shapes: a 6-sided box would only be valid in a flat universe and closed and open universes would have different possible shapes.
posted by dithered at 9:54 AM on October 22, 2002

Previous discussion of alternate universes which DenOfSizer might be especially interested in.
posted by euphorb at 10:37 AM on October 22, 2002

My all time favorite is the old Internet story of Ong's Hat.
Ok, I'm cheap. I've probably latched on to this one because there's always been a free version on-line.
It's still a good story, my cheapness not withstanding.
posted by metameme at 10:41 AM on October 22, 2002

Check out Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, a childrens author who is a sensation in the UK. Compared by many to the Narnia chronicles, this is the first and best of the "Dark Materials" trilogy. Think you've grown out of childrens books? You might be pleasantly surprised.
posted by grahamwell at 12:48 PM on October 22, 2002

grahamwell, I know that book as The Golden Compass, not The Northern Lights. Is it just another title switch for the US like Harry's Philosopher's and Sorcerer's Stone?
posted by krazykity16 at 5:08 PM on October 22, 2002

Yes it's changed and not just in the US. My version is called Northern Lights but all advertisments now refer to the Golden Compass. I guess that way all the titles become consistent, "The {adjective} {noun}". Anyhow its not a compass - it's an Alethiometer.
posted by grahamwell at 9:29 AM on October 28, 2002

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