Taming the multiverse
Parallel universes are no longer a figment of our imagination. They're so
real that we can reach out and touch them, and even use them to change our
world, says Marcus Chown
Flicking through New Scientist, you stop at this page, think "that's
interesting" and read these words. Another you thinks "what nonsense", and
moves on. Yet another lets out a cry, keels over and dies.
Is this an insane vision? Not according to David Deutsch of the University
of Oxford. Deutsch believes that our Universe is part of the multiverse, a
domain of parallel universes that comprises ultimate reality.
Until now, the multiverse was a hazy, ill-defined concept-little more than a
philosophical trick. But in a paper yet to be published, Deutsch has worked
out the structure of the multiverse. With it, he claims, he has answered the
last criticism of the sceptics. "For 70 years physicists have been hiding
from it, but they can hide no longer." If he's right, the multiverse is no
trick. It is real. So real that we can mould the fate of the universes and
Why believe in something so extraordinary? Because it can explain one of the
greatest mysteries of modern science: why the world of atoms behaves so very
differently from the everyday world of trees and tables.
The theory that describes atoms and their constituents is quantum mechanics.
It is hugely successful. It has led to computers, lasers and nuclear
reactors, and it tells us why the Sun shines and why the ground beneath our
feet is solid. But quantum theory also tells us something very disturbing
about atoms and their like: they can be in many places at once. This isn't
just a crazy theory-it has observable consequences (see "Interfering with
But how is it that atoms can be in many places at once whereas big things
made out of atoms-tables, trees and pencils-apparently cannot? Reconciling
the difference between the microscopic and the macroscopic is the central
problem in quantum theory.
The many worlds interpretation is one way to do it. This idea was proposed
by Princeton graduate student Hugh Everett III in 1957. According to many
worlds, quantum theory doesn't just apply to atoms, says Deutsch. "The world
of tables is exactly the same as the world of atoms."
But surely this means tables can be in many places at once. Right. But
nobody has ever seen such a schizophrenic table. So what gives?
The idea is that if you observe a table that is in two places at once, there
are also two versions of you-one that sees the table in one place and one
that sees it in another place.
The consequences are remarkable. A universe must exist for every physical
possibility. There are Earths where the Nazis prevailed in the Second World
War, where Marilyn Monroe married Einstein, and where the dinosaurs survived
and evolved into intelligent beings who read New Scientist.
However, many worlds is not the only interpretation of quantum theory.
Physicists can choose between half a dozen interpretations, all of which
predict identical outcomes for all conceivable experiments.
Deutsch dismisses them all. "Some are gibberish, like the Copenhagen
interpretation," he says-and the rest are just variations on the many worlds
For example, according to the Copenhagen interpretation, the act of
observing is crucial. Observation forces an atom to make up its mind, and
plump for being in only one place out of all the possible places it could
be. But the Copenhagen interpretation is itself open to interpretation. What
constitutes an observation? For some people, this only requires a
large-scale object such as a particle detector. For others it means an
interaction with some kind of conscious being.
Worse still, says Deutsch, is that in this type of interpretation you have
to abandon the idea of reality. Before observation, the atom doesn't have a
real position. To Deutsch, the whole thing is mysticism-throwing up our
hands and saying there are some things we are not allowed to ask.
Some interpretations do try to give the microscopic world reality, but they
are all disguised versions of the many worlds idea, says Deutsch. "Their
proponents have fallen over backwards to talk about the many worlds in a way
that makes it appear as if they are not."
In this category, Deutsch includes David Bohm's "pilot-wave" interpretation.
Bohm's idea is that a quantum wave guides particles along their
trajectories. Then the strange shape of the pilot wave can be used to
explain all the odd quantum behaviours, such as interference patterns. In
effect, says Deutsch, Bohm's single universe occupies one groove in an
immensely complicated multi-dimensional wave function.
"The question that pilot-wave theorists must address is: what are the
unoccupied grooves?" says Deutsch. "It is no good saying they are merely
theoretical and do not exist physically, for they continually jostle each
other and the occupied groove, affecting its trajectory. What's really being
talked about here is parallel universes. Pilot-wave theories are
parallel-universe theories in a state of chronic denial."
Back and forth
Another disguised many worlds theory, says Deutsch, is John Cramer's
"transactional" interpretation in which information passes backwards and
forwards through time. When you measure the position of an atom, it sends a
message back to its earlier self to change its trajectory accordingly.
But as the system gets more complicated, the number of messages explodes.
Soon, says Deutsch, it becomes vastly greater than the number of particles
in the Universe. The full quantum evolution of a system as big as the
Universe consists of an exponentially large number of classical processes,
each of which contains the information to describe a whole universe. So
Cramer's idea forces the multiverse on you, says Deutsch.
So do other interpretations, according to Deutsch. "Quantum theory leaves no
doubt that other universes exist in exactly the same sense that the single
Universe that we see exists," he says. "This is not a matter of
interpretation. It is a logical consequence of quantum theory."
Yet many physicists still refuse to accept the multiverse. "People say the
many worlds is simply too crazy, too wasteful, too mind-blowing," says
Deutsch. "But this is an emotional not a scientific reaction. We have to
take what nature gives us."
A much more legitimate objection is that many worlds is vague and has no
firm mathematical basis. Proponents talk of a multiverse that is like a
stack of parallel universes. The critics point out that it cannot be that
simple-quantum phenomena occur precisely because the universes interact.
"What is needed is a precise mathematical model of the multiverse," says
Deutsch. And now he's made one.
The key to Deutsch's model sounds peculiar. He treats the multiverse as if
it were a quantum computer. Quantum computers exploit the strangeness of
quantum systems-their ability to be in many states at once-to do certain
kinds of calculation at ludicrously high speed. For example, they could
quickly search huge databases that would take an ordinary computer the
lifetime of the Universe. Although the hardware is still at a very basic
stage, the theory of how quantum computers process information is well
In 1985, Deutsch proved that such a machine can simulate any conceivable
quantum system, and that includes the Universe itself. So to work out the
basic structure of the multiverse, all you need to do is analyse a general
quantum calculation. "The set of all programs that can be run on a quantum
computer includes programs that would simulate the multiverse," says
Deutsch. "So we don't have to include any details of stars and galaxies in
the real Universe, we can just analyse quantum computers and look at how
information flows inside them."
If information could flow freely from one part of the multiverse to another,
we'd live in a chaotic world where all possibilities would overlap. We
really would see two tables at once, and worse, everything imaginable would
be happening everywhere at the same time.
Deutsch found that, almost all the time, information flows only within small
pieces of the quantum calculation, and not in between those pieces. These
pieces, he says, are separate universes. They feel separate and autonomous
because all the information we receive through our senses has come from
within one universe. As Oxford philosopher Michael Lockwood put it, "We
cannot look sideways, through the multiverse, any more than we can look into
Sometimes universes in Deutsch's model peel apart only locally and
fleetingly, and then slap back together again. This is the cause of quantum
interference, which is at the root of everything from the two-slit
experiment to the basic structure of atoms.
Other physicists are still digesting what Deutsch has to say. Anton
Zeilinger of the University of Vienna remains unconvinced. "The multiverse
interpretation is not the only possible one, and it is not even the
simplest," he says. Zeilinger instead uses information theory to come to
very different conclusions. He thinks that quantum theory comes from limits
on the information we get out of measurements (New Scientist, 17 February, p
26). As in the Copenhagen interpretation, there is no reality to what goes
on before the measurement.
But Deutsch insists that his picture is more profound than Zeilinger's. "I
hope he'll come round, and realise that the many worlds theory explains
where the information in his measurements comes from."
Why are physicists reluctant to accept many worlds? Deutsch blames logical
positivism, the idea that science should concern itself only with objects
that can be observed. In the early 20th century, some logical positivists
even denied the existence of atoms-until the evidence became overwhelming.
The evidence for the multiverse, according to Deutsch, is equally
overwhelming. "Admittedly, it's indirect," he says. "But then, we can detect
pterodactyls and quarks only indirectly too. The evidence that other
universes exist is at least as strong as the evidence for pterodactyls or
Perhaps the sceptics will be convinced by a practical demonstration of the
multiverse. And Deutsch thinks he knows how. By building a quantum computer,
he says, we can reach out and mould the multiverse.
"One day, a quantum computer will be built which does more simultaneous
calculations than there are particles in the Universe," says Deutsch. "Since
the Universe as we see it lacks the computational resources to do the
calculations, where are they being done?" It can only be in other universes,
he says. "Quantum computers share information with huge numbers of versions
of themselves throughout the multiverse."
Imagine that you have a quantum PC and you set it a problem. What happens is
that a huge number of versions of your PC split off from this Universe into
their own separate, local universes, and work on parallel strands of the
problem. A split second later, the pocket universes recombine into one, and
those strands are pulled together to provide the answer that pops up on your
screen. "Quantum computers are the first machines humans have ever built to
exploit the multiverse directly," says Deutsch.
At the moment, even the biggest quantum computers can only work their magic
on about 6 bits of information, which in Deutsch's view means they exploit
copies of themselves in 26 universes-that's just 64 of them. Because the
computational feats of such computers are puny, people can choose to ignore
the multiverse. "But something will happen when the number of parallel
calculations becomes very large," says Deutsch. "If the number is 64, people
can shut their eyes but if it's 1064, they will no longer be able to
What would it mean for you and me to know there are inconceivably many yous
and mes living out all possible histories? Surely, there is no point in
making any choices for the better if all possible outcomes happen? We might
as well stay in bed or commit suicide.
Deutsch does not agree. In fact, he thinks it could make real choice
possible. In classical physics, he says, there is no such thing as "if"; the
future is determined absolutely by the past. So there can be no free will.
In the multiverse, however, there are alternatives; the quantum
possibilities really happen. Free will might have a sensible definition,
Deutsch thinks, because the alternatives don't have to occur within equally
large slices of the multiverse. "By making good choices, doing the right
thing, we thicken the stack of universes in which versions of us live
reasonable lives," he says. "When you succeed, all the copies of you who
made the same decision succeed too. What you do for the better increases the
portion of the multiverse where good things happen."
Let's hope that deciding to read this article was the right choice.
Interfering with the multiverse
You can see the shadow of other universes using little more than a light
source and two metal plates. This is the famous double-slit experiment, the
touchstone of quantum weirdness.
Particles from the atomic realm such as photons, electrons or atoms are
fired at the first plate, which has two vertical slits in it. The particles
that go through hit the second plate on the far side.
Imagine the places that are hit show up black and that the places that are
not hit show up white. After the experiment has been running for a while,
and many particles have passed through the slits, the plate will be covered
in vertical stripes alternating black and white. That is an interference
To make it, particles that passed through one slit have to interfere with
particles that passed through the other slit. The pattern simply does not
form if you shut one slit.
The strange thing is that the interference pattern forms even if particles
come one at a time, with long periods in between. So what is affecting these
According to the many worlds interpretation, each particle interferes with
another particle going through the other slit. What other particle? "Another
particle in a neighbouring universe," says David Deutsch. He believes this
is a case where two universes split apart briefly, within the experiment,
then come back together again. "In my opinion, the argument for the many
worlds was won with the double-slit experiment. It reveals interference
between neighbouring universes, the root of all quantum phenomena."
--<>-- --<<<+>>>-- --<>--
"May we all live in eternity's sunrise,
on the seashore of endless worlds."
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