My first essay in this blog (essay means a “try” and that’s what blog posts are) was a rant about the concept of the multiverse. I’m not qualified to judge its scientific credibility; I’m entitled only to dislike it intensely, and also to suspect that at least some things said about it are logically impossible.
In this June’s issue of Scientific American, Yasunori Nomura, a highly qualified theoretical physicist, writes on “The Quantum Multiverse.” “Many cosmologists now accept the extraordinary idea that what seems to be the entire universe may actually be only a tiny part of a much larger structure called the multiverse.”
The multiverse is thought to be a consequence of another extraordinary theory, called inflation, which was conceived in order to solve other problems about the cosmos. Inflation is the expansion of the universe in its earliest moments at speeds far faster than that of light. Alan Guth, founder of the inflation theory, has said that “in an eternally inflating universe, anything that can happen will happen; in fact, it will happen an infinite number of times.”
My rant about the multiverse arose from a suspicion that when scientists say that everything that can happen must happen, and must keep happening an infinite number of times in an infinite number of universes, they may, though brimming with theoretical skill and indeed theoretical imagination, be limited in this-worldly imagination. Their idea of an incident may be, say: I decide to turn in to a certain shop for a cup of coffee; or, a cat rubs its left ear; or, a certain leaf falls; or, a certain cloud of gas condenses into stars; or, as in Nomura’s article, a particle jumps to location A rather than location B. But let us take a more complex incident.
On page 161 of volume I of General Sir Percy Sykes’s History of Persia is described the way in which a captured rebel named Phraortes was mutilated over several days in 519 B.C. at the command of the emperor Darius. I was going to quote the sentence, but I can’t bring myself to; just see what is the worst you can imagine. My question is whether the good Alan Guth is content to believe that this exact sequence of agonies, and in addition the infinite variations branching from every moment in it, must be repeated, an infinite number of times. An infinite number of times. If every one of these ghastly sufferings is in a separate universe that we cannot get information from, does that make it any more tolerable?
June 26, by the way, is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, used by Amnesty International for actions aimed toward the ending of this human practice.
There is a more scientific difficulty for the multiverse theory: the impossibility of making testable predictions based on it, since we cannot get any information from the other universes. This puts it outside the scientific method, which requires the ability to test by experiment.
Whereas the multiverse is accepted by “many cosmologists,” quantum mechanics, with its even more counter-intuitive description of what happens at the sub-atomic level, “has been confirmed by innumerable experiments.”
Nomura’s quantum-multiverse suggestion is a version of the multiverse that potentially (in a speculative way involving the curvature of space and future observations, presumably of remote galaxies) overcomes the difficulty about making testable predictions. The suggestion is that the universes branch from each event at the quantum level. (Unless I’ve misunderstood: every microscopic particle in the scene around you, including the air, and in your body, is, every time it undergoes a transition, causing a new universe to branch off.) Since these events are probabilistic, the universes exist side by side in “probabilistic space” rather than in a continuous real space.
I read on in hope that this could mean something like: it’s all one universe really, every particle in it is really in about the same place, but quivers (at its microscopic level) in a sort of mist of quantum uncertainty. I’m not at all sure that this is what Nomura means.
There is something I want to add because it hooks on (to Amnesty International, and to this date in June).
Ramadan ended on Saturday June 24. After this month of fasting ends, Muslims feast. Yesterday, June 25, I had to break off writing this about today, June 26, because we were invited to an end-of-Ramadan picnic. It came about through an Amnesty International connection.
Years ago, in South Carolina, I got a phone call from Alireza Azizi, an Iranian and an Amnesty activist, living in California. He told me of a Sudanese human-rights activist who had arrived near me and who ought to be invited to speak at an upcoming conference. This was Abdul Mutaal Girshab. He was a professor of textile economics, but had founded Amnesty groups – all five of them – in Sudan. An astonishing feat, under the Nimeiri dictatorship. But the Nimeiri dictatorship was mild compared with the military-Islamic regime that seized power in 1989, and that still rules. Girshab and his family got out just in time (there was an attempt to lure him off the airplane as it stood on the runway). He had permission to stay for a year in the U.S., and was teaching at Clemson University. He came regularly to our group meetings in Greenville, and we were in awe of his will-power: his gentle insistence that we do more. He had to move to London, and worked in Amnesty’s headquarters as director of Middle East Development. We joked that he would get Saddam Hussein attending meetings. I visited him and his wife and three children. I managed to resume contact with him a few days ago. He left Amnesty to work with or found other civic organizations in Sudan, especially the Regional Centre for Training and Development of Civil Society, and revisits the country even though it seems hardly safer for him – recently his organization’s office was raided and all its records confiscated. Here are Abdul Mutaal and his wife Hadia (and a glimpse of Tilly) at the picnic in Regent’s Park. The others present are all members of the extended family.
In another universe, even more of the family are in the picture, but in this one they are off scene to the right, playing a game of rounders.