Culture vulture

Membrane theory at work

Membrane theory at work

When worlds collide
So there we were, the lovely I. Daphne St. Brie and self, mildly despondent over a postponed band practice and utterly sick of watching reruns of CSI and Law and Order, when we remembered that we had a Discovery Channel show called Parallel Universes saved on the TiVo. An hour spent imbibing the latest permutations of theoretical physics, we figured, was just the thing to while away a pleasant not-quite-summer evening.

As an avid reader of science fiction I’ve been familiar with the concept of parallel universes as a plot device for nearly half a century. As Philip K. Dick, the greatest-ever spinner of parallel-universe tales, put it, “If you think this universe is bad, you should see some of the other ones.”

And so we took a look. The show was about the quest for that most elusive of cosmological mysteries, the universal theory: an all-encompassing theory that explains everything, including the Big Bang and whatever led up to it. Basically, it consisted of interviews with a bunch of mathematicians attempting to use logic to explain why the universe exists and behaves like it does (a pretty tall order to place on numbers, which are, after all, simply devised to count things that already exist).

Sure, statistics can be used to analyze election results, but using them to explain what happened at the creation of the universe doesn’t seem any more logical than believing that at some point a few thousand years ago a big genie popped out of a previously nonexistent bottle, waved his arms around, and said, “The universe starts now.”

In fact, the longer we watched the progression of failed theories, the more it reminded me of Bullwinkle J. Moose and his magic trick: “Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat! Nothin’ up my sleeve, and presto!” And he pulls out the roaring head of a rhino or lion, which he stuffs back in, saying, “No doubt about it, I’ve gotta get another hat.”

For those anxiously awaiting the Culture Vulture Unified Field Theory, I’ll make it briefI In junior high our science teacher posed us the paradoxical question: What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? After we’d puzzled over it for a while he smugly assured us that such an event could never occur, because the two abstractions described in the problem were mutually exclusive and could not exist in the same universe. It was like asking if an all-knowing, all-powerful god could create a mystery so profound he couldn’t figure it out: Meaningless. [Ha!]

But, as I lay awake that night mulling over the irresistible force and immovable object, trying to imagine the qualities of each. I came to the conclusion that time is an irresistible force, and space is an immovable object, and that everything takes place within the context of these two infinite aspects of the phenomenal universe. It boiled down to this: Nothing is impossible; but everything else is statistically probable.

So whether you think you’re a particle, a wave, a string, a membrane, the creation of a jealous and vengeful god, or the manifestation of a loving but lonely and frustrated god, try to relax and treat your fellow manifestations of the infinite mystery of the universe with compassion and respect. According to my calculations, if we’d all do that we’d spend less time worrying about how and why we’re here.