mingling in the multiverse: science, the infinite, & the sublime.



First of all, I’m no scientist, so all apologies if any of my scientific logic or resulting speculations are faulty.

Scientific American sent me a supplement on Parallel Universes the other day, and because of this supplement I have had an epiphany–physics and cosmology are terrifying. The article reminded me of Borges’ Library of Babel or Garden of Forking Paths (and according to Zachary Mason, author of Lost Books of the Odyssey, in an interview on BLDGBlog, Borges is a favorite of a “disproportionately many well-read scientists.”) Even accepting that science has become much more probabilistic in the 20th and 21st centuries, and that science and fiction have long had a mutually constructive relationship, it is stunning how much these descriptions of the multiverse are reminiscent of fiction and art concerned with the infinite or the sublime.

In this article I learned that we can assume space is “infinite (or at least sufficiently large) in size and almost uniformly filled with matter, as observations indicate.” According to the article, with these basic assumptions it is a small step to make the claim that “even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere,” which is to say everything that could possibly happen has happened somewhere in the infinite spread of space.

From there the article describes the various theories of the multiverse. The first has the multiple universes have been constituted and spread around by the big bang “with a degree of randomness, generating all possible arrangements with nonzero probability.” Since our universe is assumed to be typical, there is probably a high density of them in space, so they can say that your closest identical copy is about 10 to the 10 to the 28 meters away. In the space in between we could speculate that there are innumerable nearly identical copies. According to this theory we are, ourselves, a sort of book in the library of babel—an empty “box” with infinite permutations of content stretching out on every spatial axis toward infinity. I imagine a Borges story about an immortal man trying to find his exact double. Or a Nabokov story about a mortal man who tries to kill his double for the insurance money.

Another theory have each universe as a bubble floating in a nearly empty volume. Infinitely many other bubbles exist floating in this volume, in an infinite number of configurations, but have spread, “[nucleating] like raindrops in a cloud.” This volume they are floating in is expanding faster than the speed of light, so it is a cloud that is essentially infinitely large—we could travel at the speed of light forever and never reach another multiverse. We are alone in a void. Nietzsche would be thrilled.

A third is the quantum theory, in which “every conceivable way that the world could be (within the scope of quantum mechanics) corresponds to a different universe.” The die falls on all 6 sides. Another theory has even the laws of nature varying.

We can reason that these multiverses exist, but we can’t even begin to imagine them. These theories of the multiverses are, then, sublime. A sublime experience, as I read it in its most basic sense, is a reaction to the unimaginable that leads us to re-calibrate our awareness of our position in and relation to the space and time in which we are situated. Here we reason that there are multiverses, and it leads us to reconsider our position in the vastness of outer space. This reads as an intensely jacked-up version of that classic sublime experience in which a person looks up at the night sky and feels minuscule in comparison to the scope of the cosmos.

Whereas many theories of the sublime held that a thing must be aesthetic, or sensual, it’s clear to me in reading this piece that scientific thought (which few people would argue is remotely aesthetic) has tipped over another threshold into the sublime. In here there is probably an argument that could be made regarding the stubborn persistence of mind/body dualism. More fascinating to me, though, is that one might argue that science, with its habit of upsetting prevailing opinion, blind belief, and even itself, has always been an enterprise with intimate knowledge of the sublime.


8 Responses to “mingling in the multiverse: science, the infinite, & the sublime.”

  1. 1 butttub
    February 20, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Because the sublime was thought to be dangerous, travelers through the Alps were warned only to look out of their carriages through a special distorting glass that would round off the jagged peaks and make them comprehensible to the human mind.

  2. 2 Luckycloud
    February 20, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Because Sublime was thought to be dangerous, travelers through America were warned not to practice santeria.

    (Also that’s amazing. I’m happy to know that.)

  3. 3 johuat
    February 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Would you put mathematics, in its independent existence, in the sublime?

  4. 4 Luckycloud
    February 21, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    I would say that it can be, but it might be a less effective language of the sublime than scientific theory, at least to the imagination of non-specialists–I’m assuming that different kinds of infinity or Cantor’s set theory are less sublime to the non-specialist than, say, the idea of multiverses, even if the theories of them multiverse depend on both observation and mathematical extrapolation. Or: the first tells you that infinity exists as a concept, the second positions you as one in an infinite series. Though the first is definitely sublime, the second just seems MORE sublime to me. Maybe we need a typology of the sublime?

    Though you could easily argue that the idea of fractal geometry is just as sublime as the multiverse theories–though I don’t think it would be sublime if taken in its independent existence, by which I assume you mean separate from its application to world.

    So, to sum up: yes math is sublime, but is perhaps a less elegant language for the sublime than scientific theory, nature, or art can be.

    What do you think? I’m sure you know more about it than I do and I’d love to hear what you have to say.

  5. 5 Luckycloud
    February 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    By the way, my browser is telling me that I just left the 666th comment on ghost island. talk about the sublime.

  6. 6 johuat
    February 22, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    I want to delineate and ask another question. If the “theory of mathematics” is the representative language and “mathematics” is the subject matter of the theory or what is ultimately responsible for its features, would you put the latter (“mathematics”), as you might put the physical world, in the sublime?

  7. 7 Luckycloud
    February 23, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Though I’m a bit shaky on exactly what is responsible for the features of mathematical theory, it seems to me that it is the world as such–it seems hard to deny that mathematics determine the processes by which the world is shaped. So, yes. I would put mathematics in the sublime.

  8. 8 johuat
    February 23, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    Is it that mathematics determine the world or the world determines the mathematics? Is mathematics in some separate eternal realm, of which we can only learn about through the physical world, or is it a product of the way things are? Or perhaps its some particular ability of intelligence?

    p.s. the multiverse theory, which roughly states that at every point of consequence the universe branches into many independent universes where each possible action is taken, is just one of a number of attempts to deal with the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. Two of the others are the collapse of the wave function, where one of a range of outcomes is somehow probabilistically chosen, or the path integral interpretation, where causality is exchanged for correlations between histories and futures.

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