An Infinity of Doppelgängers: The Jaw Dropping NYT Science News Story You May Have Missed

The most nightmarish news bringing in 2013 isn’t coming from Iran or the Republican Party, but physicists and cosmologists: you–yes, you–may have a twin, a doppelgänger. Seriously. Lots and lots and lots of them. As may all of us.

Written by science reporter Natalie Angier, the following appeared in The New York Times science section on December 31, 2012:

Based on recent studies of the cosmic microwave afterglow of the Big Bang, with which our known universe began 13.7 billion years ago, many cosmologists now believe that this observable universe is just a tiny, if relentlessly expanding, patch of space-time embedded in a greater universal fabric that is, in a profound sense, infinite. It may be an infinitely large monoverse, or it may be an infinite bubble bath of infinitely budding and inflating multiverses, but infinite it is, and the implications of that infinity are appropriately huge.

“If you take a finite physical system and a finite set of states, and you have an infinite universe in which to sample them, to randomly explore all the possibilities, you will get duplicates,” said Anthony Aguirre, an associate professor of physics who studies theoretical cosmology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Not just rough copies, either. “If the universe is big enough, you can go all the way,” Dr. Aguirre said. “If I ask, will there be a planet like Earth with a person in Santa Cruz sitting at this colored desk, with every atom, every wave function exactly the same, if the universe is infinite the answer has to be yes.”

In short, your doppelgängers may be out there and many variants, too, some with much better hair who can play Bach like Glenn Gould. A far less savory thought: There could be a configuration, Dr. Aguirre said, “where the Nazis won the war.”

In other words, in an infinitely dynamic monoverse or multiverse every logically possible configuration of atoms will find expression sooner or later, and then do so again and again. And the news here is that many contemporary physicists and cosmologists believe the monoverse or multiverse really is this: both dynamic and infinite.

So yes, this is a vindication of the atomism of Lucretius, Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Return, and Jorge Luis Borge’s Library of Babel. That’s news too. And it’s also a nightmare in which what will come to pass “in the womb of time” is not just what you most hope for, but also what you most dread (such as separations from loved ones and deaths in holocausts).

Nietzsche thought the solution to this knowledge was to embrace and love the fate you currently experience (because you will be repeating it an infinite number of times anyway).

But these doppelgängers have another nightmarish quality: a soul stealing quality. They lead humans to doubt the existence of God and their own experiences of free will. Chance and determinism, not gods and free will, take center stage in the dynamic and infinite multiverse.

But when, exactly, did contemporary physicists and cosmologists start seriously vindicating Lucretius, Nietzsche, and Borge over, say, Thomas Aquinas and Descartes? The NYT article traces this evolution to Alan Guth, who proposed the idea of cosmic inflation in 1982:

With his majestic theory of relativity, Einstein knitted together time and space, quashing old Aristotelian distinctions between actual and potential infinity and ushering in the contemporary era of infinity seeking. Another advance came in the 1980s, when Alan Guth introduced the idea of cosmic inflation, a kind of vacuum energy that vastly expanded the size of the universe soon after its fiery birth.

New theories suggest that such inflation may not have been a one-shot event, but rather part of a runaway process called eternal inflation, an infinite ballooning and bubbling outward of this and possibly other universes.

Relativity and inflation theory, said Dr. Aguirre, “allow us to conceptualize things that would have seemed impossible before.” Time can be twisted, he said, “so from one point of view the universe is a finite thing that is growing into something infinite if you wait forever, but from another point of view it’s always infinite.”

Or maybe the universe is like Jorge Luis Borges’s fastidiously imagined Library of Babel, composed of interminable numbers of hexagonal galleries with polished surfaces that “feign and promise infinity.”

So in 1982 Alan Guth basically killed God and vindicated the atomists, both classic and modern, once and for all (for anyone paying attention). There’s simply no turning back from the gnosis that contemporary physics and cosmology has brought us to: that the universe is huge, probably without end, and therefore capable of producing improbable configurations of matter again and again. Look, for example, at this Hubble Deep Field image, which was also released as news to the public within the past few months (in September, to be exact):


Here’s how the Assistant Managing Editor of, Clara Moskowitz, described this image back in September:

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured the farthest-ever view into the universe, a photo that reveals thousands of galaxies billions of light-years away.

The picture, called eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, combines 10 years of Hubble telescope views of one patch of sky. Only the accumulated light gathered over so many observation sessions can reveal such distant objects, some of which are one ten-billionth the brightness that the human eye can see.

The photo is a sequel to the original “Hubble Ultra Deep Field,” a picture the Hubble Space Telescope took in 2003 and 2004 that collected light over many hours to reveal thousands of distant galaxies in what was the deepest view of the universe so far.

It’s staggering to think that the image shows us, not just a tiny patch of sky, but as Moscowitz puts it, light that is “one ten-billionth the brightness that the human eye can see.”

So that’s the revelation. Combining atomism with Guth and the Hubble Deep Field brings us to an overwhelming conclusion: there appears to be enough space and time for highly improbable combinations of atoms to repeat themselves.

What then is your relationship as a dancer to this mad atomic dance of infinite doppelgängers? Though your doppelgängers “touch you not,” shall you simply ignore their existence, or be emotionally crushed in the knowledge that they’re there? You indeed appear to be the little shrew of the self on which Shiva places her foot indifferently and does her twirls, but should you care? As Yeats once wrote:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

And what can we do about it? Apparently nothing. In the grand scheme of things we are very near to nothing. Puppets in the matrix. Perhaps quite literally. This past month it was reported that a physicist seriously proposes to test whether the universe we know may be embedded in a computer simulation! That’s how deep into Alice’s rabbit hole dynamic atomism has taken us in the 21st century. This is the nightmare. Hell for a post-theological age. Here’s how Borge put it:

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transformite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratalogical Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism. . . . I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wilderness of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.

Cosmology and physics have joined Borges and Nietzsche in rescuing this “subaltern horror” of infinite dicing matter and information from the ancient atomists like Lucretius. But they’ve done so, not on the grounds of philosophy (which we could safely ignore), but of science. Here’s John Updike confronting neoatomism back in 1985:

[O]ur century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.

As we begin 2013, this is the news: humanity is psychologically scorched by neoatomism and far out at sea. Now what, Skipper?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to An Infinity of Doppelgängers: The Jaw Dropping NYT Science News Story You May Have Missed

  1. Cool. It’s the monkeys with the typewriters taken to … well … infinity. Also, these reports always make me feel optimistic: I don’t feel small but huge with infinite possibility, as if science is saying, Yes there is some enduring essence. It might not be what you imagine, however.

  2. It is also true of the human species that what we cannot conquer, we destroy. My vote is for space travel now. We need to be learning to flit from galaxy to galaxy.

    Personally, I want to meet one of my doppelgangers. We have the evidence that infinite numbers of stars and their planets are out there. Why are we still here on this planet only?

    Damn the philosophy of it. The atomists were right, get over it already.

    Where is my space shuttle!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      So in a rush! : )

      “What is this transhuman life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”


      • Look, I get it. So we’ll have a chat and a cup of tea on the way to the cruiser. Where is that shuttle already?

        Seriously, I consider all of this good news. Nietzsche gets a bad rap all around if you ask me. I have believed he was right for a long time and have been waiting for the science to catch up. No, prognostication is not my thing, I just see things as I do and have a propensity for seeing the puzzle pieces falling together slowly before many others do. Gene Roddenberry, he did prognostication.

        If you consider what a Star Trek prequel would look like, written in a post Gorbachev era, it would start out looking like the next 25 years should turn out to look. Wait, that sounds like prognosticating to me… I might have to do a post on this.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I’ll read it if you write it. We do seem to be heading for a transhuman future. It will come with good and bad elements. I’m wondering when psychonauts will become the norm (people who explore consciousness with DMT and other hallucinogens). That may be a frontier for exploration that goes in rather than out. And there are aspects of such trips hard to account for in materialist, strictly atheist, terms.


  3. “If I ask, will there be a planet like Earth with a person in Santa Cruz sitting at this colored desk, with every atom, every wave function exactly the same, if the universe is infinite the answer has to be yes.”

    No, it does not. If I say, I have an infinite amount of digits (which can be duplicates), does that mean that “2” has to appear? No, if I have infinitly many “1”s, it’s still an infinite amount of numbers and no “2”. You would have to now how the variables are distributed to make such a statement.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Good catch. You’re right about that. But if I answer, “The atoms are distributed by chance, not by design,” then you would expect the configuration to return again and again. It wouldn’t be avoided by design or system bias.

  4. Pingback: Star Trek: The Post Gorbachev-ian Prequel « myatheistlife

  5. This is very old news I’m afraid. Cosmologist Max Tegmark (now at MIT) wrote about this in a Scientific American article in 2003. (Search ‘Tegmark doppelgangers’).You have to keep up!

  6. PS Doppelgangers elsewhere in a spatially infinite is interesting but of little practicality since you can never see or contact them. What is really interesting is the prospect of your doppleganger in this universe with an infinite future. Could this be you? A scientific, rather than a religious reincarnation? Discuss!

  7. This isnt the product of scientific exploration..its the bias of atheistic thought. Only an atheistic would buy this comic book explanation–what else can he do? Consent to his own doom?

    All of humanity throughout history has come to the determination that God designed and created the universe. The novel, abnormal view is legos just popped out of nothing and assembled this complexity by magic.

    Atheists entered the fields of Origins while the Theists entered the fields of Medicine with their science scholarships. In the USA–that’s 700,000 MD’s to 18,000 Physicists. For the MD’s the obvious reason was… why search for answers I already believe I have. The long standing company line in the past was “The world only “””appears””” designed…we’re sure the parameters are wide to get to the complexity we see with our eyes”

    Ok…………and the results are In……………and…….TaDa

    The Math is Infinitely worse than what we can see.

    In fact, its so mind blowing that it makes former claims of the “appearance of design” look childish. Our Universe is Impossible.
    If only there were more universes…but wait, there’s a problem with that..

    …..that’s more than there are.

    Maybe we’re in computer simulation? Maybe if we get some adhesive and patch all the loopholes together, we can glue it all together, and prop it up with string like a talking puppet. It would be embarrassing but aren’t we already there?

    When is somebody gonna have the courage to just state the obvious. A magical everything maker machine that just happens to pop out exactly what you need doesn’t solve problems …it defines the real problem.

    Has it ever occurred to you that there would be another You that witnesses the same data and the only difference in that world is You(he) completely disagrees with you. There would be an infinite amount of them, robbing your conclusion of any claim to Reason. What I’m saying is I hear people treating the issue as if it can be dismissed by a loophole using probability, but it introduces a reality where probability becomes meaningless. I think if people would spend a few days running through all the absurdities and contradictions that would exist if *Everything existed, they’d see … not only is the price too high but the disease is worse than the cure.

    HERE THE CRUX OF situation

    These people are all professed ATHEISTS.
    Thats a huge red flag. All you have to do is look up all the guys who are trying push death from a thousand slowly but surely brace the public, essentially soften us up, for the big blow….we changed the definition of science because the FineTuning points directly to a Creator.

    So this is not coming from theists or soft agnostics…it is coming from Hard Core atheists who are essentially activists. They have written book, articles, done debates–all mocking a Creator

    So when such a biased source is at the tip of spear–someone has got to come forward and expose them.
    Look, if if help you sleep at night..fine. But only atheists will buy what your selling and quite frankly..polls show normal people wouldn’t even trust an atheist to watch their cat, let alone trust them when they proclaim God is dead

    • Andrew McLauchlin says:

      Wow Jim, what a response! Where to start? Perhaps with an easy bit. The term ‘hard-core’ atheists is meaningless. It’s a derogatory term invented to insult atheists by association with pornography. Most atheists aren’t ‘activists’. They couldn’t be bothered. Some of them do indeed get irritated when theists propose something particularly absurd and of course when they are being attacked with fatuous arguments, but that’s all. The thing to be understood is that atheism isn’t a philosophy. any more than belief in a round earth or that 2 + 2 = 4 are philosophies. Atheism is simply the inevitable conclusion of an open mind to two unassailable facts – a) there is absolutely no viable evidence of the existence of any God and b) more importantly, there is contrary evidence – that of natural disasters in which millions of innocent men, women and, worst of all, children, have perished in the most horrific ways. No ‘loving’, ‘all powerful’ God could have created and tolerated that. Theists have tried to explain away those two obstacles to the existence of a God but it isn’t possible with coherent, rational argument, any more than a flat-earther can explain away the evidence for a round earth.

      You should understand that the ‘solution’ that the universe was created by a God explains nothing. THAT would be the ‘magic’ you criticize atheists for believing. It simply moves the question ‘How did the universe begin?’ to ‘How did God begin?’. And the traditional answer that ‘God has always existed’ begs the question, ‘Then why can’t the universe have always existed?

      And so on…

      Regarding ‘doppelgangers’, you should also understand that these are merely the idle speculations of scientists over coffee. These guys (and ladies!) are a different breed from you and I. They think and talk about anything that is scientifically possible, however fanciful, and doppelgangers are just one such topic. They talk about time travel in exactly the same way – it’s physically possible. And that’s where they part company with theists. What theists suggest, however nice and comforting, particularly on the matter of life after death, is NOT possible.

      To finish where this thread began, on doppelgangers, my own view, and I believe that of a few cosmologists who know about such things, is that these phenomena would be readily explained by the assumption that the dimensions of both space and time are circular. Doppelgangers would then be much like multiple reflections in mirrors – they exist but are not ‘hard’ reality.

      But are space and time circular? Well it’s more likely than that there is a God who beavered hard for 7 days and has done precious little else for the subsequent 15 billion (or is it 8000?) years.

      With best wishes to you (and your doppelgangers!)

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        What’s logically possible and what’s actual is always what’s at question. What is true? It’s not that monotheism or Hinduism or the multiverse aren’t logically possible, it’s whether or not, in fact, they’re actual. Being embedded in the system we’re trying to explain, we’re stuck with induction and arguing to the best explanation (that is, to the explanation that seems not merely plausible, but most probable).

        My own best guess is that we live in something infinite, multiple, and contingent that has its ground of being in something nondual, singular, and necessary–an uncaused first cause of some sort (whether this is something personal or impersonal I don’t know).

        But whatever it is, it is something somehow prior to being and nonbeing, as an unbroken egg is prior to the two halves of a broken egg. Some great symmetry is tumbling out to infinity. It’s the ontological mystery. It’s what we’re all pointing to (like the monolith in 2001). How did it get here?

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