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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for December, 2011

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

“Science fiction writers, I am sorry to say, really do not know anything. We can’t talk about science, because our knowledge of it is limited and unofficial, and usually our fiction is dreadful.”

Philip K. Dick

When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.

By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.

The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.

The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas! This dogma is often accompanied by its traditional mate, exceptionalism – as in “My god is better than yours.” Namely, the notion that SF is intrinsically “better” than mainstream literary fiction because… it looks to the future, rather than lingering in the oh-so-prosaic present… it deals with Big Questions rather than the trivial dilemmas of ordinary humans… or equivalent arguments of similar weight.

I’ve already discussed the fact that contemporary SF no longer even pretends to deal with real science or scientific extrapolation. As I said elsewhere, I think that the real division in literature, as in all art, is not between genre and mainstream, but between craft and hackery. Any body of work that relies on recycled recipes and sequels is hackery, whether this is genre or mainstream (as just one example of the latter, try to read Updike past the middle of his career). Beyond these strictures, however, SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults.

Now before the predictable shrieks of “Elitist!” erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute. A few short story examples: Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree’s A Momentary Taste of Being; Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life; Ursula Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea; Joan Vinge’s Eyes of Amber. Some novel-length ones: Melissa Scott’s Dreamships; Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows; C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station; Donald Kingsbury’s Courtship Rite. Given this list, one source of the juvenile feel of most SF becomes obvious: fear of emotions; especially love in all its guises, including the sexual kind (the real thing, in its full messiness and glory, not the emetic glop that usurps the territory in much genre writing, including romance).

SF seems to hew to the long-disproved tenet that complex emotions inhibit critical thinking and are best left to non-alpha-males, along with doing the laundry. Some of this comes from the calvinist prudery towards sex, the converse glorification of violence and the contempt for sensual richness and intellectual subtlety that is endemic in Anglo-Saxon cultures. Coupled to that is the fact that many SF readers (some of whom go on to become SF writers) can only attain “dominance” in Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft. This state of Peter-Pan-craving-comfort-food-and-comfort-porn makes many of them firm believers in girl cooties. By equating articulate emotions with femaleness, they apparently fail to understand that complex emotions are co-extensive with high level cognition.

Biologists, except for the Tarzanist branch of the evo-psycho crowd, know full well by now that in fact cortical emotions enable people to make decisions. Emotions are an inextricable part of the indivisible unit that is the body/brain/mind and humans cannot function well without the constant feedback loops of these complex circuits. We know this from the work of António Damasio and his successors in connection with people who suffer neurological insults. People with damage to that human-specific newcomer, the pre-frontal cortex, often perform at high (even genius) levels in various intelligence and language tests – but they display gross defects in planning, judgment and social behavior. To adopt such a stance by choice is not a smart strategy even for hard-core social Darwinists, who can be found in disproportionate numbers in SF conventions and presses.

To be fair, cortical emotions may indeed inhibit something: shooting reflexes, needed in arcade games and any circumstance where unthinking execution of orders is desirable. So Galactic Emperors won’t do well as either real-life rulers or fictional characters if all they can feel and express are the so-called Four Fs that pass for sophistication in much of contemporary SF and fantasy, from the latest efforts of Iain Banks to Joe Abercrombie.

Practically speaking, what can a person do besides groan when faced with another Story of Ideas? My solution is to edit an anthology of the type of SF I’d like to read: mythic space opera, written by and for full adults. If I succeed and my stamina holds, this may turn into a semi-regular event, perhaps even a small press. So keep your telescopes trained on this constellation.

Note: This is part of a lengthening series on the tangled web of interactions between science, SF and fiction. Previous rounds: Why SF needs…

…science (or at least knowledge of the scientific process): SF Goes McDonald’s — Less Taste, More Gristle
…empathy: Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst
…literacy: Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
…storytelling: To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club

Images: 1st, Bill Watterson’s Calvin, who knows all about tantrums; 2nd, Dork Vader, an exemplar of those who tantrumize at Atwood; 3rd, shorthand vision of my projected anthology.

Poetry for the Solstice

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

My poem Mirror Twin just appeared in Stone Telling 6. It is a twin in more ways than one: it is the mate/prequel to Spacetime Geodesics, which appeared earlier this year in Bull Spec 6.

Eleni Tsami generously gave me permission to use a black-and-white version of her haunting Spaceborn (to the right — click on the image to see a larger version) as the accompanying art, and the editors of Stone Telling granted my wish. As is customary in that venue, there is also a recording of me reciting the poem. The opening lines:

Starship navigators live
by renunciation and arrogance.

Happy Solstice!

The Circus Ringmaster: John le Carré

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love.

– William Butler Yeats, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death

My mother used to joke about me, “Put a sheet with moving shadows in front of her and she will watch them.” Indeed, outside the lab I’m restless unless I’m reading books or watching films that engage me; both activities make me go instantly still for as long as the process lasts. My first encounter with le Carré was the film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the late sixties. Shot in stark black and white, with Richard Burton and a luminous Claire Bloom, it was that rare thing – an adaptation that honored its source.

So the day after I saw the film I marched into my extremely well-endowed high school library, searched the “Restricted” section (where all the interesting books were sequestered) and pounced. The librarian already knew me too well to object; I spirited my booty to safety and devoured it during my more boring classes, tucked inside textbooks. This was how I imprinted on le Carré. My appetite for him has remained unslaked down the decades. Among his (happy sigh!) still-lengthening output, my favorites are The Little Drummer Girl, The Constant Gardener and the two bookends of the Smiley trilogy.

Le Carré succeeds in what most authors dream of but few achieve: he creates fully realized worlds inhabited by complex human beings (well, men) dealing with complex issues. He manages this without resorting to infodumps or appendices. He is so self-assured that he commits several cardinal sins, according to the recipes of writing workshops: he always starts in media res, he never explains terms (Circus, mole, lamplighters, scalphunters, babysitters, wranglers, inquisitors) and he shifts viewpoints constantly and unapologetically. We get strobe glimpses of people and events from multiple angles. As these accumulate, they coalesce into a shimmering tesseract: the puzzle that inhabits the center of each story.

Le Carré’s books require attentive reading and are genuinely thought-provoking within their framework, whether this is Cold War rivalries, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or big pharma shenanigans. To put it succinctly, they’re meant for mental and emotional adults. This defining attribute places them far above run-of-the-mill genre hackeries. It comes as no surprise that he was nominated for the Booker Prize. His characters highlight the often irreconcilable dilemmas of personal versus professional loyalties; in this he continues the work of Graham Greene, without Greene’s sanctimonious religiosity.

Much has been said about le Carré’s George Smiley being the antithesis to James Bond. Bond is the cardboard alpha male, festooned with glitzy gadgets and pneumatic trophy women. Smiley is one of the competent faceless geeks who uphold the world. In le Carré’s world of ambiguous morality and shadow games, Smiley hews to one lodestar: loyalty to “his people” – the people who become his chosen extended family by dint of putting flesh-and-blood humans above abstract principles or power plays. When he passes judgment on Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy it is clear that in his eyes Haydon’s real betrayal was to choose status over people: the casual use and disposal of lovers and colleagues, not of the sorry parochial “principles” of the British Empire.

Smiley rarely wins: in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold he loses Alec Leamas and Liz Gold; in Tinker, Tailor he loses his home plus most of his clan. But when summoned to be a nettoyeur of Augean stables, he metes out justice like a Hollywood vigilante. Except he does it not with a gun but with information files; not with jazzy torture devices but with understanding of the fault lines that run through the hearts of men. Which brings us to the blind spot of Smiley and his creator. [Those of you who glaze over at the mere mention of women can skip the next three paragraphs and resume reading when I get back to issues deemed “universally” interesting.]

People will argue, correctly, that in showing the arrant sexism of mid-twentieth-century Britain le Carré was simply hewing to reality – as Prime Suspect did, decades later. After all, we speak of a culture that still manages to publish all-male “best of” anthologies and whose contemporary “literati” still publicly defend the use of cunt as an acceptable term of censure. However, le Carré’s women are not just abstractions on the page – they’re also abstractions to their own men. They fall into two overlapping categories: Bitch Goddesses and Distant Beacons, Arwens to pre-Andúril Aragorns. Bear in mind that le Carré is neither reactionary nor prudish: he included homosexuals without ostentatious ado even in his early works (Jim Prideaux, Connie Sachs) and Bill Haydon is a poster case of the Alkiviádhis-type lethal bisexual charmer. Yet his women fade into a pre-Raphaelite haze of watercolors and violin strings.

Ann Sercombe Smiley is both Bitch Goddess and Distant Beacon to everyone within her radius. Yet all we learn of her is that she is nobly born, radiantly beautiful and joylessly promiscuous (heaven forfend that even a heavenly “slut” should enjoy her urges). Most le Carré women are solely there to spur the men into action: the prototype is the tragic Irina, who’s summarily dispatched after she awakens Ricky Tarr’s slumbering conscience in Tinker, Tailor. Similar fates befall Liz Gold, a maiden/mother helpmate in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Katya Orlovna, almost entirely a parade of creaky pseudo-delphic utterances, in The Russia House (at least she may get ransomed); and Sophie Maplethorpe in The Night Manager. Louisa Pendel is there essentially as a bromance conduit in The Tailor of Panama. And Tessa Quayle, the ostensible moral center of The Constant Gardener, is safely dead and pedestalized before the novel even starts.

The exceptions are telling as well: Connie Sachs, the formidable intelligence analyst in the Smiley novels, is that universally derided stereotype, the bluestocking fag hag (“All my lovely boys!”). Her lesbianism, inexplicably elided in the recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, is shown as the constricting “loving jailor” Yourcenar/Frick variety. Charlie No-Last-Name of The Little Drummer Girl is an actress who is literally an empty vessel to be filled in by the men around her. Interestingly she was played by Diane Keaton, another male muse who was essentially a collection of tics, although the role was meant for Vanessa Redgrave, who knows full well what it means to be a strong woman embedded in dynasties of male-only “begats”.

Le Carré’s two depictions of quasi-real women occur in Smiley’s People – possibly because they are the baits he uses to reel in his Soviet doppelgänger and nemesis, Karla, and hence they must demonstrate they deserve their glory-by-association. One of them, Maria Andreyevna Ostrakova (the always peerless Eileen Atkins), even breaks the mould of La Belle Dame sans Merci: she is almost elderly, unglamorous… and ferociously alive, attaining the stature of le Carré’s other fully realized humans. The other, Alexandra/Tatiana, is a tortured cipher who nevertheless shows glimpses of a specific person/ality buried in the cliché.

Alexandra is Karla’s daughter by a lover he adored but killed because he considered her a danger to the purity of his goal. Smiley uses this chink of humanity in Karla to break him. It is characteristic that he sunders all of his own human ties before this undertaking, so that he has no Achilles heel that jeopardizes his final task. In the end, Smiley reverses roles with Karla. By defecting to protect his daughter, Karla becomes flesh; by using Karla’s daughter to defeat him, Smiley turns to stone. Le Carré himself, moving from early Smiley to late Karla, maintains his stance of ambiguity up to his middle-late works. However, after the Cold War novels, his moral judgments become more absolute as his novels move out of the cloistered enclaves of MI6 and into the larger world where boardroom power games translate to millions of deaths and stunted lives.

Inevitably, many of le Carré’s works have been adapted to the screen. Given their complexity and the artificial demand that they be fitted to two-hour slots, they are mostly shadows of themselves. Beyond The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the partial exceptions correspond to three of my four favorites. Le Carré agrees with my assessment, because he makes cameo appearances in two of them: The Little Drummer Girl and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The Little Drummer Girl retains a fair amount of le Carré’s Chinese puzzle structure and draws riveting performances from Klaus Kinski (a fiery Martin Kurtz) and Sami Frey (a spellbinding Khalil). However, the film is doomed by the total miscasting of Charlie (Diane Keaton, as discussed earlier) and Gadi/Joseph (Yórghos Voyagís) who drain their pivotal characters of both charisma and erotic chemistry. The Constant Gardener flattens most of the plot and character intricacies but boasts Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle (Ok, you can take away the smelling salts now…) and Rachel Weisz (Tessa Quayle) who can convey intense intelligence despite her beauty, as witnessed in her depiction of Hypatia in Agora.

And so we come to the jewel in the crown – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The film has enormous shoes to fill: it must measure up not only to the book but also to the BBC series that also includes the other bookend, Smiley’s People. I watched it several times, once in a marathon session of fifteen hours spanning a new year transition. A TV series has the room to do justice to plot complexities and to showcase the ensemble acting of enormously talented professionals that has been a traditional glory of the British. Indeed, many people consider the BBC diptych the definitive version of the works. Its atmospherics are impeccable, exemplified by the increasingly frowning matryoshkas and a haunting rendition of Nunc dimittis in the credits. The characters are brought to electrifying life by the illustrious likes of Ian Richardson (Bill Haydon), Ian Bannen (Jim Prideaux), Alexander Knox (Control) and with Alec Guinness as the calm but formidable eye of the storm. The series unquestionably deserves all the accolades it gathered.

Tomas Alfredson’s film also boasts impeccable period atmosphere (a feat, considering the distance from the time the book was written as well as the era it depicts) and once again the ensemble acting of high-octane professionals. Standouts: Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), breaking his usual typecasting, speaks volumes with his eyes; Tom Hardy (Ricky Tarr) is as feral as the young Brando; John Hurt (Control) pulses with obsession and choler, wreathed in whisky fumes and cigarette smoke; and Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), here shown as a closeted homosexual rather than a lady-killer, is a reluctant but conscientious convert to Smiley’s philosophy.

Gary Oldman, one of the few blonds in my personal gallery of talented eye candy, gives us a restrained, nuanced George Smiley. We cannot help but extrapolate to the turbulent waters underneath, if only from his previous portrayals of such tortured souls as Sid Vicious, Count Dracula and Sirius Black. Also, the fact that he’s a decade younger than Guinness when he portrayed Smiley makes the sudden yawning emptiness in his life far more palpable and poignant. Not surprisingly, there is incredible plot compression but the film never condescends to its audience: like the book, it demands focus and attention. There are countless small touches that convey enormous amounts of information – glances exchanged across tables, the lowering of a car window to let a bee fly out, a hand tightening on a banister.

Several items have been changed, some in the service of streamlining, others clearly aesthetic choices on the director’s part. I found two objectionable: Ann Smiley, whose face is never shown, is nevertheless implied to be far younger and more vulgar than her rarefied book persona (maintained in the series by the otherworldly Siân Phillips). Also, Jim Prideaux kills Bill Haydon with a long-distance rifle instead of snapping his neck, although in both cases Haydon is shown as aware and accepting of what is about to happen. This diminishes the emotional weight of the action, particularly on Prideaux’s side of the equation.

These caveats aside, the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a worthy incarnation of the book, different enough from the TV series to be appreciated in its own right. Like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is an unexpected gift. And gods and demons know how rare such gifts are, especially for someone like me who will still watch moving shadows on a sheet, but would rather watch truly original retellings of old myths.

Images: 1st, Shadow Theater Tales, Alexander Ovchinnikov; 2nd, Eileen Atkins as Maria Ostrakova in Smiley’s People; 3rd, the final matryoshka in the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy BBC series credits; 4th, husked grains in Tinker, Tailor: Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

My Views on the 100-Yr Starship Study in Stereo

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Immediately after my discussion of Kepler 22b, Christopher Jones interviewed me for Trek.fm. I first met Chris when he interviewed me about The Biology of Star Trek for Suite 101.

This time around, Chris asked me to opine on the 100-Year Starship symposium, long-generation starships and the future of humanity on- and off-earth.

Slouching to the Right of the Drake Equation

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— William Butler Yeats, Second Coming

The last few years have been heady for planet hunters. First the hot Jupiters; then the will-o’-the-wisp Glieslings and their cousins; and in the last year, the results from the Kepler mission which detected planetary systems in the low thousands; one of these is Kepler 22.

Kepler 22 is a G5 type star (our sun is G2, about 10% bigger and hotter) 600 light years away with a planetary entourage. For anyone who was in a sequestered jury room or a silently running nuclear submarine, what got splashed across the news media on December 5 was the confirmation that one of the Keplerings is a super-Earth (2.4 times the radius of our planet) that is solidly within the habitable zone of its primary – habitable defined as the region where water can remain liquid. It circles its primary in 289 days and its estimated average temperature is a balmy 22 C/75 F if (big if) it has an atmosphere thick enough for a mild greenhouse effect.

That’s what we know, and it’s important and exciting enough. Here’s what we don’t know, which makes the exclamations of “Twin Earth!” annoying: we don’t know its mass (though the wobble velocity puts an upper limit of 36 Earth masses on it), its composition, the composition of its atmosphere or if it has any moons. Equally annoying are the suggestions to name it The Christmas Planet or the barely less mawkish Hope, right down there with the naming of putative Gliese 581g something like Betty (not even Elizabeth, which at least would celebrate an unforgettable historic figure, plus several literary ones).

The Kepler findings are pinning down the still-loose middle terms of the Drake equation by strongly indicating that most suns have planetary systems, and most planets are of the small rocky variety. Of the approximately 2,000 systems Kepler tentatively identified, about fifty have planets within the habitable zone, of which perhaps ten are “Earth-like” (loosely defined).

Half a percent may not sound like much. But given the quarter trillion suns in our galaxy, the numbers mount up quickly. Plus, of course, the size and location of the newcomer inevitably raises expectations: if Kepler 22b is rocky and has decent amounts of water and a reasonably thick atmosphere, the probability of life moves into the “likely” zone. So it’s not surprising that the Allen Array turned its dishes in the direction of Kepler 22 (no requests for Warren Zevon yet, but the night is still young) – or that the concept art is coming in thick and fast.

It is a great pity that Kepler 22b is so far. Even expeditions with quasi-exotic propulsion systems (or exceptionally nice humans in flawless arkships) would take a long time to reach it. But the lengthening list of not-quite-Earths is a powerful enticement not to abandon the faltering beacon of space exploration. Once again, I will close with what I said about Gliese 581g:

“Whether [Kepler 22b] is so hospitable that we could live there or so hostile that we could only visit it vicariously through robotic orbiters and rovers, if it harbors life — even bacterial life, often mistakenly labeled “simple” — the impact of such a discovery will exceed that of most other discoveries combined. Unless supremely advanced Kardashev III level aliens seeded the galaxy like the Hainish in Ursula Le Guin’s Ekumen, this life will be an independent genesis, enabling biologists to define which requirements for life are universal and which are parochial.

At this point, we cannot determine if [Kepler 22b] has an atmosphere, let alone life signatures. If it has non-technological life, without a doubt it will be so different that we may not recognize it. Nor is it a given, despite our fond dreaming in science fiction, that we will be able to communicate with it if it is sentient. In practical terms, a second life sample may exist much closer to home — on Mars, Europa, Titan or Enceladus. But those who are enthusiastic about this discovery articulate something beyond its potential seismic impact on biology and culture: the desire of humanity for companions among the sea of stars, a potent myth and an equally potent engine for exploration.”

Images: 1st, one of the four Kepler 22b imaginings by space artist Ron Miller. 2nd, comparison of Sol and Kepler 22 (NASA/Ames/JPL).

Spacetime ‘Branes: The Multiverse

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

by David Darling

Today I have the pleasure of hosting my friend David Darling, an astronomer and well-known science writer, who will update us on the multiverse. Dr. Darling has written many books of popular science, including Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology (in which he mentions my views on Rare Earth and the Anthropic Principle). He also maintains a much-visited website, The Worlds of David Darling that contains The Internet Encyclopedia of Science. His latest book, Megacatastrophes!: Nine Strange Ways the World Could End, his second collaboration with Dirk Schulze-Makuch, will appear next spring.

The multiverse, or theory of many universes, is very much in the news right now because some recent work strongly suggests that it might be true. The basic, mind-boggling idea is that “out there” is more than just the bubble of space-time we happen to live in – what we call the Universe. There are trillions and trillions (and trillions and trillions…) of other universes. Don’t even bother trying to imagine them all or your head might explode.

Surprisingly, the word “multiverse” has been around for a long time. It was coined way back in 1895 by the American philosopher William James, although he probably had something quite different in mind than what modern scientists are talking about.

And what are they talking about? Here’s the first problem we run into in tackling the multiverse concept. When scientists talk about the multiverse they can mean different things. To a cosmologist – someone interested in the origins and evolution of the universe as a whole – the multiverse is a consequence of the nature of the vacuum, which isn’t as empty as we usually suppose. The cosmologist’s multiverse stems from something called chaotic inflationary theory, which itself is a variety of the theory of cosmic inflation. In a nutshell, our universe is like a bubble of spacetime that spawned from a great foaming ocean of spacetime that’s always existed and always will exist. In it’s first few moments, our universe expanded at a fantastic rate before settling down to a more sedate rate of growth. But beyond our universe are other, similar bubbles – other universes – each expanding and each with their own physical constants and laws. One estimate puts the number of such universes at an outrageous 10 to the power 10 to the power 10 million (in other words 1 followed by 10 to the 10 million zeros – aargh!).

On the other hand, to a quantum physicist – someone who deals with the very smallest things in nature – the concept of the multiverse is a different beast. If you believe in something called Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which a lot of quantum scientists do, every time an observation is made at the quantum (super-tiny) level, the universe splits into all the possible outcomes that could happen. I’m not even going to get into what counts as an “observation”! Some people say it has to involve a conscious or sentient observer (like a human being); others argue that any measuring instrument will do. It’s complicated. But the underlying message of Everett’s theory is that any time an event (such as a collision between particles) is watched, the universe splits in various ways to take account of all the possible outcomes. Needless to say, this gets pretty crazy pretty fast! If every outcome of every minuscule watched event gives rise to an entirely new universe, then the total number of universes in this quantum physical view of the multiverse is beyond mind-boggling.

So there are these two different multiverse scenarios – the one of the cosmologist and the one of the quantum physicist. And they aren’t mutually exclusive. They could both be right. Trying to figure out the consequences if both types of multiverse are real and co-existent very quickly overwhelms my brain’s paltry (and diminishing) collection of neurons. But let’s just focus on a couple of particulars. In the quantum physicist’s multiverse, there are bound to be a lot of universes that are very similar to the one we live in. In fact there are going to be a lot of universes with other you’s – some of them only very slightly different from the one that we’re in right now. The cosmologist’s multiverse also allows for a vast number of universes, but the chances of almost exact copies of you is more remote. Instead, the cosmologist’s multiverse is populated by an incredible variety of bubbles of space-time in which the laws and basic constants are expected to vary widely. Probably very few are capable of supporting life.

Another distinction between the two types of multiverse is their fundamental nature. The cosmologist’s multiverse is a bit easier to grasp. Put it this way, if there were a parallel you in a bubble-universe that was the product of chaotic inflation then this other you would exist in the familiar three dimensions of space. But an alternative you in Everett’s many-worlds picture is a much more esoteric affair: a creature living in a different quantum branch of something called Hilbert space. Not being a mathematician, I won’t try to explain what Hilbert space is (Google it, if you’re interested). Suffice it to say, it’s an extremely important concept in quantum mechanics – but far from easy to visualize.

Now the exciting thing is, physicists are getting close to being able to test if the multiverse is real. If there are other universes beyond our own, then it’s likely we may have bumped into them in the past, resulting in the cosmic equivalent of fender benders. The impacts ought to show up as dents in the cosmic microwave background – the now much-cooled afterglow of the Big Bang. For some time, the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite has been mapping the microwave background to an unprecedented level of precision. The results will be out soon and may confirm the multiverse theory.

On a different front, theorists have made a discovery that goes to the very heart of quantum mechanics. They’ve shown its very likely that something called the wavefunction – the most important concept in the physics of the very small – isn’t a mere wave of probability as previously supposed, but a real physical object. The most far-reaching conclusion of this is that Everett’s many-worlds interpretation is correct and the quantum physicist’s multiverse is also a fact.

So get ready for expanding horizons. Just a few centuries ago, people thought there was only one sun. Then it turned out the stars were suns too. Then we discovered that our Milky Way Galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, was just one among many galaxies. Then it turned out that galaxies were arranged in clusters, which in turned formed superclusters. Now it seems our universe is just one of an unbelievable number of other universes. Who’s to say the hierarchy doesn’t extend beyond the multiverse?

Images: David Darling, Life Everywhere; bubble universes, Sally Bensusen/SciencePhotoLibrary.