I’m a nerd. No, really. Hard to believe though it is, I’m a solid geek. So obviously I watched tonight’s BBC4 show about parallel worlds (and not just watched it, but had seen it previewed in the paper and got very excited about it, and unplugged the phone so my parents couldn’t call me during it after returning from whatever Spanish bar they’re currently getting pissed up in).
Shame the science only filled maybe half the show, and the other half was taken up with E’s personal psychotherapy session as he learned about his long-deceased father. (This was BBC4, ferchrissakes, I expect the sentimentality on BBC1. Maybe I should just hope for a Horizon on Hugh Everett’s theory?) Anyway. Quantum physics, man. It’s fucked up. Being a nerd I know all about the science fiction applications of parallel worlds, but I had no idea they had basis in accepted scientific theory. If you didn’t see it… oh god, now I’m going to attempt to explain it.
Stuff at the sub-atomic level doesn’t obey the same laws of physics as stuff larger than atoms. You, me, trees, planets; we obey laws of gravity and motion. Atoms don’t. Apparently. You know when you’re in school and you have to draw diagrams of atoms, with the neutrons and protons in the nucleus at the centre and the electrons moving around the nucleus? Your traditional image of the atom?
Yeah, that’s bollocks. The electrons don’t circle the nucleus in a traditional, pedestrian way. They sort of smear around it – and now I understand that’s what’s meant by the term "electron cloud" – because each electron is present in multiple locations at the same time.
It’s all about Schrödinger’s cat. You know, the one with the cat in the sealed box with the radioactive material and the geiger counter attached to a hammer that’s poised above a bottle of poison, and if the radioactive material decays (a reaction at the sub-atomic level) then the geiger counter will trigger the hammer, the hammer will break the poison and the cat will die. But because it’s all happening in the box, nobody knows whether the radioactive material has had its sub-atomic reaction and whether the cat is alive or dead. Or, rather, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. Neils Bohr, famous Danish physicist whom I’ve heard of primarily because of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen but that’s really neither here nor there, stated that both states exist until the sub-atomic object is observed.
To the non-scientific mind, this is clearly bollocks. How can the mere act of observing something cause it to resolve? Surely it either has or it hasn’t (though remember, this is quantum theory we’re talking about here and it’s fucked up). Thankfully, Schrödinger thought it was bollocks as well and his cat thought experiment is probably the most famous bit of sarcasm ever.
There is something weird going on with the atoms though. They don’t behave like they’re supposed to. The programme demonstrated this experiment – the double slit experiment (which I now see continued in a way to back up the observationists, over here; fucked up, man) which basically proves that atoms exist in many locations at the same time. So… what happens to the many variants of each atom? Do they behave under observation? Does the act of observing the atom really fix it in one space and moment, whereas in the millisecond before it was being observed it existed in two or more states, like Schrödinger’s cat? Or does each variant state of each atom, as E’s dad proposed, actually split off into separate universes, where every possible outcome happens? These atoms do exist in multiple states, but then create just one outcome that we can see. They do. They definitely do. How they do it seems to be the big mystery.
And it blows my mind, this scientifically accepted idea that one of the ways to explain how these multiple sub-atomic states get resolved, is that each state creates its own parallel universe to exist in. But, you know, I remember watching the Channel 4 series on string theory a few years ago, which backed up another sci-fi favourite of there being more than four dimensions. It could be happening. It could always have been happening.
It’s fucked up, man. Fucked up.