Brian Greene: Welcome to the Multiverse

The latest developments in cosmology point toward the possibility that our universe is merely one of billions.

May 21, 2012 1:00 AM EDT


“What really interests me is whether God had any choice in creating the world.” 

That’s how Albert Einstein, in his characteristically poetic way, asked whether our universe is the only possible universe.

The reference to God is easily misread, as Einstein’s question wasn’t theological. Instead, Einstein wanted to know whether the laws of physics necessarily yield a unique universe—ours—filled with galaxies, stars, and planets. Or instead, like each year’s assortment of new cars on the dealer’s lot, could the laws allow for universes with a wide range of different features? And if so, is the majestic reality we’ve come to know—through powerful telescopes and mammoth particle colliders—the product of some random process, a cosmic roll of the dice that selected our features from a menu of possibilities? Or is there a deeper explanation for why things are the way they are?

In Einstein’s day, the possibility that our universe could have turned out differently was a mind-bender that physicists might have bandied about long after the day’s more serious research was done. But recently, the question has shifted from the outskirts of physics to the mainstream. And rather than merely imagining that our universe might have had different properties, proponents of three independent developments now suggest that there are other universes, separate from ours, most made from different kinds of particles and governed by different forces, populating an astoundingly vast cosmos.

The multiverse, as this vast cosmos is called, is one of the most polarizing concepts to have emerged from physics in decades, inspiring heated arguments between those who propose that it is the next phase in our understanding of reality, and those who claim that it is utter nonsense, a travesty born of theoreticians letting their imaginations run wild.

So which is it? And why should we care? Grasping the answer requires that we first come to grips with the big bang.

In Search of the Bang

In 1915, Einstein published the most important of all his works, the general theory of relativity, which was the culmination of a 10-year search to understand the force of gravity. The theory was a marvel of mathematical beauty, providing equations that could explain everything from the motion of planets to the trajectory of starlight with stupendous accuracy.

Within a few short years, additional mathematical analyses concluded that space itself is expanding, dragging each galaxy away from every other. Though Einstein at first strongly resisted this startling implication of his own theory, observations of deep space made by the great American astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 confirmed it. And before long, scientists reasoned that if space is now expanding, then at ever earlier times the universe must have been ever smaller. At some moment in the distant past, everything we now see—the ingredients responsible for every planet, every star, every galaxy, even space itself—must have been compressed to an infinitesimal speck that then swelled outward, evolving into the universe as we know it.

Direct evidence for the multiverse might come from a collision between our expanding universe and its neighbors. (Mehau Kulyk / Photo Researchers, Inc.)

The big-bang theory was born. During the decades that followed, the theory would receive overwhelming observational support. Yet scientists were aware that the big-bang theory suffered from a significant shortcoming. Of all things, it leaves out the bang. Einstein’s equations do a wonderful job of describing how the universe evolved from a split second after the bang, but the equations break down (similar to the error message returned by a calculator when you try to divide 1 by 0?) when applied to the extreme environment of the universe’s earliest moment. The big bang thus provides no insight into what might have powered the bang itself.

Fuel for the Fire

In the 1980s, physicist Alan Guth offered an enhanced version of the big-bang theory, called inflationary cosmology, which promised to fill this critical gap. The centerpiece of the proposal is a hypothetical cosmic fuel that, if concentrated in a tiny region, would drive a brief but stupendous outward rush of space—a bang, and a big one at that. In fact, mathematical calculations showed that the burst would have been so intense that tiny jitters from the quantum realm would have been stretched enormously and smeared clear across space. Like overextended spandex showing the pattern of its weave, this would yield a precise pattern of miniscule temperature variations, slightly hotter spots and slightly colder spots dotting the night sky. In the early 1990s, NASA’s Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer satellite first detected these temperature variations, garnering Nobel Prizes for team leaders John Mather and George Smoot.

Remarkably, mathematical analysis also revealed—and here’s where the multiverse enters—that as space expands the cosmic fuel replenishes itself, and so efficiently that it is virtually impossible to use it all up. Which means that the big bang would likely not be a unique event. Instead, the fuel would not only power the bang giving rise to our expanding realm, but it would power countless other bangs, too, each yielding its own separate, expanding universe. Our universe would then be a single expanding bubble inhabiting a grand cosmic bubble bath of universes—a multiverse.

It’s a striking prospect. If correct, it would provide the capstone on a long series of cosmic reappraisals. We once thought our planet was the center of it all, only to realize that we’re one of many planets orbiting the sun, only then to learn that the sun, parked in a suburb of the Milky Way, is one of hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, only then to find that the Milky Way is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies inhabiting the universe. Now, inflationary cosmology was suggesting that our universe, filled with those billions of galaxies, stars, and planets, might merely be one of many occupying a vast multiverse.

Yet, when the multiverse was proposed back in the 1980s by pioneers Andrei Linde and Alexander Vilenkin, the community of physicists shrugged. The other universes, even if they existed, would stand outside what we can observe—we only have access to this universe. Apparently, then, they wouldn’t affect us and we wouldn’t affect them. So what role could other universes possibly play in science, a discipline devoted to explaining what we do see?

And that’s where things stood for about a decade, until an astounding astronomical observation suggested an answer.

The Mystery of Dark Energy

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