Article — From the December 2011 issue

The Accidental Universe

Science’s crisis of faith

( 5 of 6 )

The concept of the multiverse is compelling not only because it explains the problem of fine-tuning. As I mentioned earlier, the possibility of the multiverse is actually predicted by modern theories of physics. One such theory, called eternal inflation, is a revision of Guth’s inflation theory developed by Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, and Alex Vilenkin in the early and mid-1980s. In regular inflation theory, the very rapid expansion of the infant universe is caused by an energy field, like dark energy, that is temporarily trapped in a condition that does not represent the lowest possible energy for the universe as a whole—like a marble sitting in a small dent on a table. The marble can stay there, but if it is jostled it will roll out of the dent, roll across the table, and then fall to the floor (which represents the lowest possible energy level). In the theory of eternal inflation, the dark energy field has many different values at different points of space, analogous to lots of marbles sitting in lots of dents on the cosmic table. Moreover, as space expands rapidly, the number of marbles increases. Each of these marbles is jostled by the random processes inherent in quantum mechanics, and some of the marbles will begin rolling across the table and onto the floor. Each marble starts a new Big Bang, essentially a new universe. Thus, the original, rapidly expanding universe spawns a multitude of new universes, in a never-ending process.

String theory, too, predicts the possibility of the multiverse. Originally conceived in the late 1960s as a theory of the strong nuclear force but soon enlarged far beyond that ambition, string theory postulates that the smallest constituents of matter are not subatomic particles like the electron but extremely tiny one-dimensional “strings” of energy. These elemental strings can vibrate at different frequencies, like the strings of a violin, and the different modes of vibration correspond to different fundamental particles and forces. String theories typically require seven dimensions of space in addition to the usual three, which are compacted down to such small sizes that we never experience them, like a three-dimensional garden hose that appears as a one-dimensional line when seen from a great distance. There are, in fact, a vast number of ways that the extra dimensions in string theory can be folded up, and each of the different ways corresponds to a different universe with different physical properties.

It was originally hoped that from a theory of these strings, with very few additional parameters, physicists would be able to explain all the forces and particles of nature—all of reality would be a manifestation of the vibrations of elemental strings. String theory would then be the ultimate realization of the Platonic ideal of a fully explicable cosmos. In the past few years, however, physicists have discovered that string theory predicts not a unique universe but a huge number of possible universes with different properties. It has been estimated that the “string landscape” contains 10500 different possible universes. For all practical purposes, that number is infinite.

It is important to point out that neither eternal inflation nor string theory has anywhere near the experimental support of many previous theories in physics, such as special relativity or quantum electrodynamics, mentioned earlier. Eternal inflation or string theory, or both, could turn out to be wrong. However, some of the world’s leading physicists have devoted their careers to the study of these two theories.

is a physicist and novelist who teaches at MIT. His novel <em>Mr g: A Novel About the Creation</em> was published in January 2012 by Pantheon.

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