What I do in the simplest of terms is sit around and try to come up with clever things and put them together in interesting ways. That’s it, but it’s a great challenge and a fun one. The only limitations to a story are of my own imagination and my ability to describe it. My goal as a writer is to create stories that succeed in bringing my imagination to the page as accurately and creatively as possible. I want readers to experience my stories as if the worlds they exist in could be real, as if they are happening right in front of their eyes.
And despite my effort to do that — despite every storyteller’s effort to do that — you know what’s even better at coming up with crazy, amazing ideas and putting them together in interesting ways?
Science. Real life science. It beats me at my own game every time, and I am not ashamed to admit it.
There Are Other Worlds than These
As a child, the scope of your world is perhaps limited to your family and your home, the places you know directly. How can there be anything more than what you have seen with your own eyes? As you grow the idea that there is more beyond what you have seen firsthand becomes easier to believe. I’ve never been to the canals of Venice, but I trust that those who have been there are not making it up and that the photos I’ve seen are not fake.*
Through the lens of science, the scope of reality seems in continual growth as our knowledge expands and improves. It baffles and astonishes me, and I love it. I haven’t written anything about science here before. I don’t know how often I will in the future. But a post on io9 about the 9 weirdest implications of the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) struck me as so mind-boggling that I couldn’t resist.**
Quick bit of warning if you’re a physicist or just scientifically literate. I know I’m simplifying the subjects that follow dramatically. I’m not an expert here, and I’m not purporting to be. This post is not so much about the science itself as my interest in it.
Infinity Times Infinity
You’ve probably heard of the MWI whether you realize it or not. At its very simplest, MWI is the idea of parallel worlds or universes. But not just one. Not just a single world that is very close to our own like you might see in science fiction stories, but possibly infinite worlds and therefore infinite possible realities. If correct, MWI could mean that not only are there infinite worlds like our own with differences so slight we could not perceive them, but there are also infinite worlds in which any reality that, roughly speaking, conforms to the laws of the universe is not only possible but has actually happened.
Have you ever considered eating pizza and then decided to have peanut butter and jelly instead? Well in some other version of the universe, you chowed down on some pizza. And in some other version of the universe, you never existed. And in yet another, humans never evolved to become the dominant life form on earth. Also, there is no earth. These outcomes are all possible and real if MWI is correct.
Are you kidding me? What an incredible idea! Go ahead and read the whole io9 post and the implications of MWI. I’m most interested in seeing what we can do about #7 which would involve trying to communicate across realities. Now that is some science fiction goodness. What blows my mind the most though, is that although the theory is controversial, it is very much not science fiction.*** It’s a serious line of inquiry.
The MWI has fascinated me for a long time, ever since I became aware of the idea that our experience of the arrow of time runs into trouble with some aspects of quantum mechanics that show symmetrical predictions for the direction of time. In other words, some parts of quantum mechanics show no reason why an egg could not un-crack or a glass of milk un-spill. Sure, there are other parts of physics that can help us explain why we don’t see those things, but the idea that time could move equally well in either direction is, well, just plain cool. As I said above, I’ve oversimplified this stuff, but if you’re interested in knowing more I suggest checking out “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene (or watch the PBS adaptation). Suffice it to say it’s not a huge leap from quantum mechanics and time to the Many Worlds Interpretation.
Think More Bigger-er
As a storyteller, the MWI inspires me even as it shames me for my lack of real imagination. I enjoy stories that go beyond the scope of our reality. I’m in the process of writing several. I love mythology and folklore and fantasy, anything that stretches beyond what we know in our observable world. Yet I’m consistently amazed what is part of our world. When I write a story that involves fantasy, I know I’m making it up. That’s the fun bit, after all, and there’s no expectation that I try to prove any of the outlandish things I come up with are somehow real.
What science can do is even cooler. Starting from what we already know and believe to be true, scientists extend our knowledge by proposing explanations for the stuff we still can’t seem to suss out. Some of these explanations seem more far-fetched on the surface than the craziest fantasy novel you’ve ever read. You know, like the possibility that existence is an infinitely expanding set of equally valid realities. If I wrote you a story with that premise, that’s all it would be. A story. But a scientist can tell you something just as fantastical and will then try to prove that it’s true.
That’s real sorcery. Science is awesome, and I need to step up my game.
Here’s what I’m imagining about MWI post from above. What if every story we’ve ever told, no matter how far-fetched compared to our world, is really just a factual retelling of events from another reality?****
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*For what it’s worth, when I went to the Great Wall I did have a few moments where it went from something sort of theoretical to truly real. Knowing a thing is real is no substitute for seeing it if you have the chance.
**Interesting tidbit. The earliest incarnation of the Many Worlds Interpretation was put forward by a physicist called Hugh Everett III. He was the father of one of my favorite musicians, Mark Oliver Everett, who is better known for his band eels.
***Bonus information I feel must be shared. When scientists use the word “theory,” they aren’t using it like most folks do in everyday conversation. In a scientific context, a theory has lots of observable information to support it. It’s not just a passing notion of how things might work, which is how I think we most commonly use it. When I say I have a theory of how line workers at Chipotle decide when to give a little extra of an ingredient, it means I am mostly taking a wild guess. When a scientist refers to a climate change “theory,” it means they’ve got buckets of data to support it. It does not make it incontrovertible fact, but it means there’s been real study that indicates the theory predicts and explains observable phenomena.
****Zero drugs were used in the writing of this sentence.