Quantum mechanics, the musician and the multiverse: reality as a Glass Bead Game.
I am no scientist. I am a musician, but like many artists I’m as inspired by the minutiae of life as I am by huge metaphysical concepts. After all, art is one of the ways we’ve chosen to depict philosophical ideas, to grapple with life’s mysteries. So when, about four years ago, I stumbled across the problems of quantum theory in a regular Monday night BBC documentary, it opened up my thoughts in a very particular way to the nature of the unknown that lies at the core of everything around us. What I hadn’t appreciated, when one tries to describe what’s going on at the smallest sub-atomic level we’re yet able to do, is that not only do things not act, nor can they be demonstrated to act, in a logical way, but that at the very heart of our reality there is a multiplicity, an unsolved mystery, that continues to evade scientific certainty.
Put as briefly as a layman like me can appreciate or explain, at the tiny micro-level of particles that make up atoms, the so-called ‘quantum’ world of electrons and neutrons, there is a problem. Scientists can demonstrate the existence of many of these particles, and they’re finding new ones all the time, but mapping how they move — in the conventional sense of ‘movement’ — or pinpointing their ‘position’ at any given moment of time, can’t really be done. One can access certain data about the position of a particle, but it’s not possible to simultaneously prove where it has come from or at what speed. In other words, a particle is liable to move in certain probable ways, travelling from a given position to any number of subsequent positions. But it is impossible to see it go from one point to the other, nor entirely prove that it does either. It implies that the entirety of our material existence is made up of particles that are not really demonstrably there, but also effectively — at least in mathematical terms — in two places at once.
Physicist Niels Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ was the best that science in the early 20th century was able to posit as an explanation, an interpretation system, of the quantum problem. Bohr’s conclusion at the time was effectively thus: we don’t know why we can’t track these particles accurately, but we know that something happens when we try to, so let’s agree on the uncertainty, and move on with the data we can work with. Since then, what’s been gleaned from the concepts and workings of quantum theory has brought radical progress to scientific understanding and technology; nuclear power and the microchip are just two advances that have relied on quantum theory as a starting point, and the impact of such advances has been huge. But quantum uncertainty continues to dog the particle physicists and theorists, those who are determined to pick apart the lock at the heart of reality, to understand what so far has evaded us.
This is where the ‘many-worlds’ interpretation comes in, an idea that was largely dismissed when the theoretician who discovered it — or at least named the idea — presented it to the scientific community, and to Niels Bohr himself, in the late 1950s. A certain Hugh Everett was that young, idealistic physicist at Princeton at the time, who used his undergraduate thesis in 1957 to present a radical new interpretation, the idea that parallel ‘worlds’ co-exist and branch out from every quantum event.
When scientists set about explaining what’s going on at the quantum level in understandable, demonstrable concepts, they often invoke the idea of the ‘observer’. Bohr had asserted that the act of observing a quantum event ‘collapses’ the many predicted possibilities into a single outcome, and it is that one we must live with. Imagine a pencil held up straight and dropped on a table: within the linear concept of time we easily understand, the pencil will fall into one of any number of positions, but once it has, the situation is irreversible and the pencil will logically never have fallen any other way. Any quantum event can be described in this way, but Everett’s theory was an entirely new formulation. His take was that the multiple outcomes not only are possible, but actually all take place, observed by just as many ‘versions’ of the observer as there are outcomes. The versions can’t interact with each other, however, so their multiple existences have no relevance to each other, in terms of our understood reality. These different versions may or may not occupy the same physical space; but since the different outcomes cannot physically interact — are in ‘quantum decoherence’ — it doesn’t matter if they occupy the same space or not. They simply occupy the same conceptual space.
Still with me? No, I’m not sure I am either, and that’s the beauty at the heart of this problem. It’s better understood with mathematics, which is outside of my grasp. Artists like me want to visualise how a problem like this works. Practically, how do you depict many-worlds (AKA multiverse) theory, what are its observable implications? What does it look like? It’s all too easy to boil it down to a simple one-off narrative example, a cute sci-fi plot vehicle. Maybe you’ve seen Sliding Doors, where a chance decision, a quantum event, has two different outcomes for a character, both of which we’re invited to explore side-by-side. It’s thought-provoking, in a cup-of-tea sort of way, since life as we know it is easily understood as hingeing on fateful moments, crossroads from which massively diverging life-paths can lead. The same concept is explored in some of our favourite films and books of course, but the implications of the idea are utterly limited when they’re done in this way. In truth they’re massive, and domino down not just to life choices and great art, but to whether we exist or not, whether life is not only simply an accident, but in fact a mathematical construct, a chance extrapolation of the likelihood of every quantum event possible. Perhaps it is only our ability to philosophically ‘observe’ the outcome of quantum events happening constantly around us that gives the illusion of some kind of ‘reality’, of consciousness, of life.
Many-worlds theory can’t really be proved with experiments or anecdotal evidence but its maths, as I understand, is now a pretty standard theoretical interpretation of the problems at the heart of quantum mechanics. Max Tegmark, one of many-worlds theory’s most eloquent proponents, does describe one experiment that could prove it, although the only person who’d have proof of the results would be a lone, subjective observer. His ‘quantum suicide’ experiment is explained here, but essentially involves rigging a gun to either kill you or not kill you at each juncture of a number of sequential quantum events. Since every outcome of those events is possible, at the end of the experiment there will be one conscious remaining you who will have survived every event. Your existence at that point therefore proves the theory, although you survive in only one of millions of quantum outcomes, and none of those outcomes is statistically any more likely than another. And you will be the only person who can actually experience that final event. But in every scenario except one you won’t. Confusing, right?
Beyond these baffling thought-experiments, I don’t simply admire the multiverse concept as the starting point for a rich vein of artistic threads through the last century and a half, from Wells and Asimov, Spinrad and Heinlein, even Ian McEwan, to Back To The Future and Donnie Darko. My love of it doesn’t even stop at the vast number of alternate worlds of Philip K Dick, whose exhaustive diary of philosophy — his ‘Exegesis’ — echoes constantly with the idea. What really fascinates me about it is that its maths could be the answer to every question we have about existence, full stop.
I don’t have the analytical brain or even the inclination to to attempt to get to grips with the maths of quantum theory, its concepts and diagrams, which I suspect could unlock it for me even more. My passion is for dirty rock music played loud through distortion pedals, but its ideas seem to be written all around me in a giant three-dimensional equation. Multiverse theory might be precisely the single language of art, music, mathematics and science that Hesse imagined in ‘The Glass Bead Game’ — and that’s a beautiful prospect. What we’re all trying to explain, in our clawed scrawlings on blackboards, on lined paper or vinyl records (or whatever it is these kids make stuff on these days), is our relationship to, our understanding of the world. We, and everything we look at, ingest, and create, are built from this same inexplicable algebraic framework, an unsolved puzzle that either exists, doesn’t exist, or something even more perplexing: both. The underlying answer, beneath the symmetry and the maths, somewhere inside these elusive particles, is something I can visualise almost like an on-off switch for God. Intelligent design. Complete mathematical chance. One and the same thing?
But then that’s me as an artist. Visualising.