Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Choices and Quantum Physics

Have you ever stopped your car at a 4-way stop, along with several other cars, and all found yourselves in a protracted hesitation? No one remembers who got there first—we all sort of drifted to the stop as if in a dream and entered a kind of twilight zone. Invariably, everyone decides to move forward at the same time, only to halt in mild panic. Then one feisty individual finally forges ahead and establishes a pattern that all can follow. Everyone breathes a collective sigh and life moves on.
Life’s full of choices. In fact, the quantum physicists would tell you that life is really a series of non-stop choices—from that big stretch before you haul yourself out of bed in the morning to the decision to bake salmon burgers for supper that evening—resulting in an infinite number of realizable worlds. The Everett many-worlds interpretation (MWI), formulated in 1956 by Hugh Everett, holds that all the possibilities described by quantum theory simultaneously occur in a "multiverse" composed of mostly independent parallel universes. This represents an alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation originally formulated by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg around 1927. The state of the entire multiverse is related to the states of the constituent universes by quantum superposition, and is described by a single universal wavefunction. This is related to Richard Feynman's multiple histories interpretation and H. Dieter Zeh's many-minds interpretation.

Another theory, the string landscape theory, asserts that a different universe exists for each of the very large ensemble of solutions generated when ten dimensional string theory is reduced to the four-dimensional low-energy world we see.

A multiverse (or meta-universe) is the hypothetical set of multiple possible universes (including our universe) that together comprise all of physical reality. The different universes within a multiverse are sometimes called parallel universes. The structure of the multiverse, the nature of each universe within it and the relationship between the various constituent universes, depend on the specific multiverse hypothesis considered. According to Max Tegmark the existence of other universes is a direct implication of cosmological observations. Tegmark describes the set of related concepts which share the notion that there are universes beyond the familiar observable one, and goes on to provide a taxonomy of parallel universes organized by levels. To clarify terminology, George Ellis, U. Kirchner and W.R. Stoeger recommend using the term “the Universe” for the theoretical model of the whole of space-time in which we live; “universe domain” for the observable universe or a similar part of the same space-time, “universe” for a general space-time—either our own “Universe” or another one disconnected from our own; “multiverse” for a set of disconnected space-times; and “multi-domain universe” for the model of the whole of a single connected space-time using chaotic inflation models.
Various versions of the multiverse thoery include:

1) open multiverse (spatially unbounded universe);

2) bubble theory (an infinite number of open multiverses, each with different physical constants); and

3) big bounce (After the big bang, the universe expands for a while before the gravitational attraction of matter causes it to collapse back in and undergo a Big bounce. Although the model was abandoned for a time, the theory was revived in brane cosmology as the cyclic model.).

Often the alternate worlds theme in science fiction is framed by postulating that every historical event spawns a new universe for every possible outcome, resulting in a number of alternate histories. Fantasy has long borrowed the idea of "another world" from myth, legend and religion. Heaven, Hell, Olympus, Valhalla are all “alternate universes” different from the familiar material realm. Modern fantasy often presents the concept as a series of planes of existence where the laws of nature differ, allowing magical phenomena of some sort on some planes. Wikipedia discusses some examples of these: “The popular MYST computer game franchise uses concepts of describing a world and then linking to that world, which is part of a multiverse of infinite possible and concurrently existing universes, matching the descriptions. Also, the computer game Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and its sequels feature two distinct parallel universes. The protagonist, Raziel, is capable of existing in both the Material Realm, or normal reality, and the Spectral Realm, a dark and distorted version of the former with its own physics and properties. The Michael Crichton novel Timeline featured a method for what appeared to be time travel by traveling to parallel universes that are identical except for the moment of their birth, thus rendering off-set yet parallel time. The DC Universe, famous home of Batman and Superman, uses the multiverse as the basis for their universe. This is in part to help deal with their 67 year history. In the 1980s DC published the ever popular Crisis on Infinite Earths which detailed a breakdown of the Multiverse at the hands of the Anti-Monitor. The television series Star Trek has many times gone into parallel "Mirror" universes, and Stargate SG-1 has postulated parallel universes.”

But, back to that 4-way stop and choices. Most of our many choices over a day are mundane ones, choices related to things we do subconsciously within the natural rhythm of our daily lives. Then there are those significant choices that we must make, which often grind our little rote existence to a halt. You know the ones: Should I move? Talk or keep silent? Confront or run away? Accept or deny? Fall in love...or not? These choices will change our lives and the lives of several others in some significant way. The possibilities aren’t as easily defined; they are often diverse with complicated and varied consequences. You have entered a different zone, another plain or existence from your “ordinary” world of mundane choices. Ecologists have a word for this in both spatial and temporal terms. The word is Ecotone. According to limnologist George K. Reid an ecotone “constitutes a ‘buffer’ zone, between two communities.” An example would be an estuary, which exists between the freshwater ecosystem of a river and the saltwater ecosystem of the open ocean. Ecotones are typically the most varied and rich community, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. For me, this is a fitting metaphor, given that the big choices we must face in life are the ones that prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them.

Recommended Reading:
Tegmark, Max (May 2003). "Parallel Universes". Scientific American.

Ellis, George F.R., U. Kirchner, W.R. Stoeger (2004). "

Multiverses and physical cosmology". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 347: 921-936.

Lewis, David (1986). On the Plurality of Worlds. Basil Blackwell.

Deutsch, David (45841 1985). in Splash: Quantum theory, the Church-Turing principle and the universal quantum computer, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A 400, mos craciun, 97-117.


David Deutsch, extracts from
Chapter 14: "The Ends of the Universe" of The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes—and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997), ISBN 0713990619; with additional comments by Frank J. Tipler.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


Erik said...

One of my fave episodes of "Futurama" is "The Farnsworth Parabox" where an alternative universe is accidentally constructed which is identical to ours except every coin flip comes out the opposite. It's a funny yet concise way of explaining it.

I solve the problem my own way. When approaching a 4-way stop, I slam on my breaks hard after everyone else has, so that it's really obvious I'm last in line. There is no issue that way. :-)

Greg said...

The popular misconception of parallel universes places humanity at the center of the split. This is similar to early notions that the Earth was the center of the universe. The only paradox that exists is in our limitation to understand the universe as a steady continuum. We are trapped in our four dimensions so perceive the universe as odd. So we see what might be called a quantum split as a fulcrum point or split between two realities. Choice is a funny word because choice really isn't involved. Everything happens, but not at the level we are accustomed to thinking about.

sfgirl said...

LOL, Erik! So, YOU'RE the one!

Good point, Greg...Yeah...choices is a very odd word. Or is it? Do things JUST happen?

Modern Matriarch said...

Here's another example of parallel universes: I live in Miami and at the four way stop near my house, cars barely stop and everyone is vying for intersection supremacy. LOL--yes it one of the top ranking cities for both road rage and driver rudeness.

Greg said...

Think about a ball choosing to fall to the ground. We can loosely say it just happens, or we can more specifically say it happens because it's sinking into a gravity well.

The idea of two or more events occurring is only odd because of our perspective. One can ask if a person can be both alive and dead and the typical answer will be no. But if we shift perspective to include the dimension of time, then we can say yes, over the course of my life, for example, there will be points where I am clearly alive, and at least one point where I am clearly dead. So yes, accounting for a different perspective or dimension, a person can be both alive and dead.

This is the same with basic possibilities in the universe. A subatomic particle might move both to the left and to the right as long as you take into account different dimensions that are outside the normal space-time continuum that we humans casually experience. In this way paradox is eliminated or at least understood to be caused by the limitation of our ability to gather empirical data with our senses, or the limitations of our ability to reason.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Parallel universes are popular grounds for stories in both books and sci-fi series.

To think that every action every one does on this planet can determine a different course of action is staggering.

sfgirl said...

Yes, it is staggering, Jean-Luc. Probably why we're not equipped to observe it... :)

And Modern Matriarch, I didn't know Miami had those kind of stats!

Greg,I concur. It is all a function of our abilities to observe. As Einstein said, "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Erik said...

As a native of Miami (Miami Palmetto class of 1983) that's where I learned to drive. Now that I live in Minnesota, I have to say that I am by far the most aggressive driver for a considerable distance. I genuinely scare people, even though I don't try.

My experience is that Miami's reputation is well deserved on that front, if this native son is any indication.

sfgirl said...

And I always thought that Montreal had the craziest drivers...(I came from there, though at the time I didn't drive...probably a good thing... :)