– Festive greetings from the summit of Coliseum Mountain
Merry Christmas folks! It’s December 25th and I spent Christmas day in the same way any other normal person would: alone and on the edge of hypothermia at the top of a mountain in British Columbia. The snow had ceded for now, but the temperature had dropped well below zero and the wind bought the cold straight through my bones. I hadn’t spoken to another human being all day.
This is what everyone does at Christmas, right?
Heavy fog obscured Hanes Valley below me, but from the summit of Coliseum Mountain I caught a few fleeting glimpses of Crown Mountain before it was erased by swirling grey mushrooms of precipitate. The clouds were spiraling upwards in huge columns and everything was navy blue or white.
I dug myself a shelter in the snow and considered the grasshopper – animal of possibilities in an infinite universe.
If the universe is infinite, all events with a physical probability of occurring must do so in order for the universe to be considered infinite. If at any given point in time all possible events occur in different physical realities simultaneously, then we have something approaching the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Many worlds theory was pioneered by Hugh Everett III who described a ‘multiverse’; a rhizomatic structure of infinite complexity where all physical realities exist as alternate timelines running parallel to one another.
Anything that can happen does happen. In many worlds theory there is a timeline where your great-great-grandparents never meet and you remain a twinkle in the eye of a stranger. In another you worship a carbon based deity known as Jim. And in a timeline much closer to your current one, you are sitting 2cm to the right of where you are now. Any event that has a non-zero probability of happening has a timeline where it does. Even something as inconceivable as Donald Trump running for president will have occurred in some godforsaken timeline far, far away from this one.
In this particular timeline, I had been traversing the western slopes of Coliseum Mountain when I noticed that the ice sounded wrong under my crampons. It sounded… plastic. I was on a steep incline above a cliff band and if I wasn’t such an idiot I would have turned around. But I am an idiot. The ice gave way beneath me and I began to slide uncontrolled towards the edge of the cliff. I hacked into the snow with my ice axe, but could get no purchase. The edge was coming up fast.
I considered the grasshopper.
The enigma at the heart of quantum mechanics is the measurement problem. Briefly, light has been proven to exist as either a wave or as a particle depending on which experiment is being carried out. How can light exist as both of these two seemingly mutually exclusive states? Quantum physicists hypothesise that prior to observation (i.e. the point at which the experiment is carried out), light exists in a superposition. That is to say that light exists as both a wave and a particle simultaneously until an observer intervenes and light becomes either a wave or a particle. This is known as wave function collapse. Once the wave function has collapsed, a history supporting the existence of whichever state has been observed is created in retrospect. Classical mechanics has died, friends.
Since this obviously defies common logic, physicists have been required to think outside of conventional modes of thought to explain this strange phenomenon.
The most widely accepted explanation of quantum systems is the Copenhagen interpretation, developed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenburg in 1925. Essentially, the Copenhagen interpretation suggests that one should shut up and stop asking so many questions in what is arguably the ultimate scientific copout in modern history.
The genesis of many worlds theory came in the late 50s with Everett’s thesis ‘Wave Mechanics without Probability’ where he posited that there is no wave function collapse, but quantum decoherence causing the subjective appearance of wave function collapse. There is only one superposition – that of the universe as an infinite whole, which never collapses since all possible outcomes exist in their own distinct timeline and hence the measurement problem is solved by not occurring.
In a nearby timeline I was the idiot who went climbing alone in the backcountry on Christmas day and fell off a cliff. If my phone had worked I would have been too embarrassed to call for help. I hadn’t even told anyone where I was going; there simply wasn’t anyone to tell. So I lay in the snow with legs snapped to pieces and considered the grasshopper.
But the grasshopper had died. There were never any possibilities. This timeline was inevitable throughout infinity and every moment of my entire lives had been leading to this.
I lay in the snow for a very long time – hundreds of years, maybe. I looked up at the sky and the stars kept spinning. I felt a strange vertigo, as if gravity had flipped and I was looking down upon the night rather than up towards the sky. My skin turned into soil and my bones sank under the roots of trees. I became one with the ground. Fuel for a future fossil generation.
The scientific community strongly rejected Everett’s many worlds theory and he was ridiculed even by the kind of physicists it’s cool to like such as Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. Dejected, he withdrew from academia and did what all good angry men do in the face of failure: he went to work at the Pentagon’s Weapons Systems Evaluation Group where he could combine his love of physics, mathematics and game theory to cost out nuclear strikes, estimate kill ratios and fallout patterns and calculate the probability of total global annihilation.
The future histories that stem from Everett’s work at the Pentagon are grave indeed.
In one of those histories, a timeline of strange coincidence, which is this one, Hugh Everett’s niece Jennifer Lewis would be working as a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 77. The flight was to be hijacked and intentionally crashed into the west side of the Pentagon on September 11 2001 exactly where Everett had worked almost 50 years earlier. Hugh’s son Mark Oliver Everett, who in a further twist to this reality achieved international fame in the 1990s as frontman of the band The Eels, could only wonder what state his father’s office was left in.
In yet another timeline, I am indoors, slightly fatter and possibly wearing some kind of jumper. There are people and a fireplace and I have eaten too much food and drank too much alcohol, but that’s ok because it’s Christmas. Real people do that kind of thing at Christmas and I am a real person. Someone I seem to care about has made me smile by sharing a silly anecdote.
But that is a timeline a long way from this one. I didn’t fall, nor did I wear a jumper. I held on. Through sheer blind, ignorant luck I pulled myself back from the edge and continued on my way. And now I sit alone in the snow at the summit of Coliseum Mountain as a new storm swirls around me and in the absence of the grasshopper, I consider Hugh Everett – animal of possibilities in an infinite universe.