Friday, April 8, 2011

Of universal appeal

I’m sure you’ve already read it. How could a book with this title not fly off the shelves? At least in some universe. And that’s what this book is about. It’s long been cliché to say, “We are not alone.” But now it’s our whole universe that has some company. We’re already seeing the effects.

First, a short step backward in time—to where I was supposed to tell you what book. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, besides having too long a title for a blog’s first paragraph, is physicist Brian Greene’s presentation of a new theory going around these days. You’ve heard of the Big Bang theory? It’s scientists' explanation for how the universe began. But now they’re changing it. Just like how they renamed the Brontosaurus the Apatosaurus and took away poor, poor planet Pluto.

According to Dr. Greene’s theory, the Big Bang resulted in not one universe but a “multiverse” of many universes. And maybe there were lots of other big bangs, each resulting in the creation of other universes. Whatever did happen, for all we know every universe might have created doubles and triples, et cetera of each of us. Just imagine, for the sake of argument, forty-two Justin Biebers! And in some of these universes, he might star in action films while the corresponding Vin Diesels croon to tweens.

My first thought about this theory is, how does a physicist prove it? Second, how are readers supposed to imagine a multiverse? For me, it’s like a ball bath with each ball representing a universe. Alas, here’s where my brain starts spinning to the point I go off the deep end—and not into a real ball bath. (I’d squash the toddlers and end up in jail.) In the ball bath of universes I’ve conjured up, the balls lack the hard-plastic shell of the usual kind. They can even, when a child jumps into the bath, blend temporarily into one another. Yes, yes…sounds like trouble. But from where I stand, it sure explains a lot of what makes the news these days.

Take the Minnesota man, last January, whose friend photographed him on his pitched roof. Ordinarily, this would not be odd. Except that his roof was covered in snow. And was clearing it using his snowblower. Haha, we say. What a doofus! But by my educated interpretation of Dr. Greene’s theory, we might instead ask which universe he came from. One, maybe, where the roof serves as a launchpad for people heading off to work, where news covers the latest air-rage skirmish between drivers.

In the same week, a woman tried to send a puppy across the country by priority mail. The box was taped shut with no air holes. We might wonder, what was she thinking? (In the old days of a single universe, we’d ask what planet she was from.) But if we have multiple universes, who’s to say that dogs from other ones even need food, oxygen and the occasional hydrant?

The list goes on, from these events last year:
• The drunken driver in East Lansing, Michigan, who called 911 on herself;
• the deputy at the jail in Collier County, Florida, who shocked a female colleague with his Taser as a joke; and
• the Story, Indiana, woman who accepted a “Village Idiot” award for setting her hair on fire.

Sure, it’s possible that the rest of us really are smart, and those who end up in these news reports are doofi. But who’s to say, in a multiverse populated by many versions of ourselves—all reading The Fog Bell at this very moment—that people from other universes didn’t occasionally slip into ours? In their own universes, maybe we’re the dunces.

Now that I think about it, though, multiple universes could present bigger problems than an inter-universal migration of the daft. Before you know it, trial lawyers will hear about the notion and put it to use. Accused of a crime? Why, you can use The Greene Defense: “It wasn’t me.” Sure, this defense dates back to the Book of Genesis. But armed with Dr. Greene’s theory, the argument that one of the defendant’s myriad doubles blew in, committed the crime and then left again (on the universe he rode in on) is bound to cast some smidgen of reasonable doubt for some jury…from some universe. And just wait till these aliens start getting elected to political office—no, wait, that’s already happened.

Yesterday came the news that the founder of Paypal is building commercial rockets; potential destinations include the moon, an asteroid or Mars. But he’s in need of paying customers. I have just the candidate, someone who’s caused quite enough trouble for one universe. Oh, Dr. Greeeeene…?