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 The New York Times 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 have 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 Space.com, 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?