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26th November 2015

“Many Worlds” admits many interpretations, and several are pursued here: worlds colliding, realities seen from other perspectives than our own, possibilities that this life we lead is not the only one we have had. But it was no surprise that for many of the authors this topic was deemed to connote the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics. In quantum theory, particles seem to exist in several different states at once, until a measurement on the particle “collapses” that so-called superposition into just a single observed state. The puzzle is how that collapse happens – the maths of quantum mechanics supplies no prescription, it must be currently added “by hand” – and where the other states go.

In 1957 the physicist Hugh Everett offered a bold solution: there is no collapse, and those other states continue to exist. It’s just that the measurement in effect splits the universe into separate universes for each one of the superposition states. But we can be consciously present in only one of them – the different universes are, by definition, unable to interact with one another after the split – and so we experience only one of the outcomes.

Everett himself never mentioned the term “Many Worlds”, but later others argued that those other universes contain complete replicas of us, the observers, along with everything else in our universe: identical, at the moment of splitting, in all respects other than the state of the particle we have observed. What happens subsequently is anyone’s guess – but in any event, these splittings are happening constantly, countless times a second, every time a quantum event occurs that might be deemed a “measurement”. (The Many Worlds Interpretation is vague about what actually constitutes a measurement, but in some versions this means essentially any interaction of any particle with any other – and so the universes multiply beyond measure.)

In this view, the selves that we “think” we are, are just one version of many, many selves, which exist in separate universes and experience different lives – indeed, just about every version of our lives that is physically possible.

The Many World Interpretation of quantum mechanics is surprisingly popular among those physicists who think about the fundamental meaning of quantum theory (which is a very small subset of physicists). There are logical and mathematical reasons why this is so, which, in my view, offer convenient cover for the fact that the MWI is logically incoherent. To say “everything that can happen does happen” doesn’t really have an objective meaning – at least not without (for one thing) renouncing any notion of personhood at all, which seems a high price to pay for the convenience of the maths.

What has interested me about the entries to this competition is how eloquently they capture the superficial attraction of the Many Worlds Interpretation. I don’t mean that the entries are superficial, but the reasons why the MWI is so popular – especially in pop science circles – is rather superficial. It sounds delightfully weird and absurd, but in fact it merely panders to rather well established narratives about alternative lives, paths not taken (see Robert Frost!), fantasy selves and Doppelgängers. These are natural imaginings: who wouldn’t love the idea that “we” really did say that thing, take that risk, lead that life. As a scientific theory, the notion that this might come to pass in other universes has no basis at all, I regret to say. But the fact that the MWI is able to prompt these creative and imaginative responses goes some way towards redeeming it!

In judging the entries, I’m with the wisdom of the crowd: 1389 is, in my opinion, the most complete and emotionally engaging. It has a real air of anguish, of missed opportunities and what might have been, of our desperate desire to wish away our sadnesses.

I agreed with the second-place vote too: 1395 has some lovely lines, like these:

‘The daughter who as a child
was lost in a Chicago museum
filled with the physics of Magritte;
and as a smaller child noticed
the silica shimmering in a lake
in Nova Scotia and deemed it diamonds.’

This poem conveyed a genuine sense of mixed emotions: pride in the child grown to her own world, her own life and skills, sadness that the mother can’t follow her there and has to accept the child as now just memories.

I liked many bits of the others; in 1386, for example, the final lines: “sometimes they do not make it. In other worlds they make it.” A good sense of rhythm. 1388 had a nice riposte to the idealized escapism of Many World fantasies. Others were fun – I wanted to find out how all of them ended.


Philip Ball is a writer, and author of many books on science and its interactions with the broader culture: the arts, history, politics and beyond. He was previously an editor of Nature for many years. His latest book is Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen (Bodley Head/University of Chicago Press).

My Notes