Noodles or A Sandwich?

“Wait, Sy, your anti-Universe idea says there are exactly two um, sub‑Universes. Even the word ‘multiverse‘ suggests more than that.”

“You’re right, Susan, most of the multiverse proposals go to the other extreme. Maybe the most extreme version grew in reaction to one popular interpretation of quantum theory. Do you know about the ‘Many Worlds‘ notion?”

“Many Worlds? Is that the one about when I decide between noodles for lunch or a sandwich, the Universe splits and there’s one of me enjoying each one?”

“That’s the popular idea. The physics idea is way smaller, far bigger and even harder to swallow. Physicists have been arguing about it for a half‑century.”

“Come again? Smaller AND bigger?”

“Smaller because it’s a quantum‑based idea about microscopic phenomena. Doesn’t say anything about things big enough to touch. Remember how quantum calculations predict statistics, not exact values? They can’t give you anything but averages and spreads. Einstein and Bohr had a couple of marquee debates about that back in the 1930s. Bohr maintained that our only path to understanding observations at the micro‑scale was to accept that events there are random and there’s no point discussing anything deeper than statistics. Einstein’s position was that the very fact that we’re successfully using an average‑based strategy says that there must be finer‑grained phenomena to average over. He called it ‘the underlying reality.’ The string theory folks have chased that possibility all the way down to the Planck‑length scale. They’ve found lots of lovely math but not much else. Hugh Everett had a different concept.”

“With that build‑up, it’d better have something to do with Many Worlds.”

“Oh, it does. Pieces of the idea have been lying around for centuries, but Everett pulled them all together and dressed them up in a quantum suit. Put simply, in his PhD thesis he showed how QM’s statistics can result from averaging over Universes. Well, one Universe per observation, but you experience a sequence of Universes and that’s what you average over.”

“How can you show something like that?”

“By going down the rabbit hole step by step and staying strictly within the formal QM framework. First step was to abstractify the operation of observing. He said it’s a matter of two separate systems, an observer A and a subject B. The A could be a person or electronics or whatever. What’s important is that A has the ability to assess and record B‘s states and how they change. Given all that, the next step is to say that both A and B are quantized, in the sense that each has a quantum state.”

“Wait, EACH has a quantum state? Even if A is a human or a massive NMR machine?”

“That’s one of the hard‑to‑swallows, but formally speaking he’s okay. If a micro‑system can have a quantum state then so can a macro‑system made up of micro‑systems. You just multiply the micro‑states together to get the macro‑state. Which gets us to the next step — when A interrogates B, the two become entangled. We then can only talk about the combined quantum state of the A+B system. Everett referred to an Einstein quote when he wrote that a mouse doesn’t change the Moon by looking at it, but the Moon changes the mouse. The next step’s a doozy so take a deep breath.”

“Ready, I suppose.”

B could have been in any of its quantum states, suppose it’s #10. After the observation, A+B must be an entangled mixture of whatever A was, combined with each of B‘s possible final states. Suppose B might switch to #42. Now we can have A+B(#42), separate from a persisting A+B(#10), plus many other possibles. As time goes by, A+B(#42) moves along its worldline independent of whatever happens to A+B(#10).”

“If they’re independent than each is in its own Universe. That’s the Many Worlds thing.”

“Now consider just how many worlds. We’re talking every potential observing macro‑system of any size, entangled with all possible quantum states of every existing micro‑system anywhere in our Observable Universe. We’re a long way from your noodles or sandwich decision.”

“An infinity of infinities.”

“Each in its own massive world.”

“Hard to swallow.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Too Many Schrödingers

Cathleen takes back control of the conference software. “Thanks, Jim. OK, the final contestant in our online Crazy Theories contest is the winner of our last face-to-face event where she told us why Spock and horseshoe crabs both have green blood. You’re up, Amanda.”

“Thanks, and hello out there. I can’t believe Jim and I are both talking about parallel universes. It’s almost like we’re thinking in parallel, right?”

<Jim’s mic is muted so he makes gagging motions>

“We need some prep work before I can talk about the Multiverse. I’m gonna start with this heat map of North America at a particular time. Hot in the Texas panhandle, cool in British Columbia, no surprise. You can do a lot with a heat map — pick a latitude and longitude, it tells you the relative temperature. Do some arithmetic on the all numbers and you can get average temperature, highs and lows, front strength in degrees per mile, lots of stuff like that.

“You build this kind of map by doing a lot of individual measurements. If you’re lucky you can summarize those measurements with a function, a compact mathematical expression that does the same job — pick a latitude and longitude, it tells you the value. Three nice things about functions — they take up a lot less space than a map, you can use straightforward mathematical operations on them so getting statistics is less work than with a map, and you can form superpositions by adding functions together.”

Cathleen interrupts. “Amanda, there’s a question in the chat box. ‘Can you give an example of superposition?’

“Sure. You can superpose simple sine‑wave functions to describe chords for sound waves or blended colors for light waves, for instance.

“Now when we get to really small‑scale thingies, we need quantum calculations. The question is, what do quantum calculations tell us? That’s been argued about for a hundred years because the values they generate are iffy superpositions. Twenty percent of this, eighty percent of that. Everybody’s heard of that poor cat in Schrödinger’s box.

“Many researchers say the quantum values are relative probabilities for observing different results in an experiment — but most of them carefully avoid worrying about why the answers aren’t always the same. Einstein wanted to know what Bohr was averaging over to get his averages. Bohr said it doesn’t matter, the percentages are the only things we can know about the system and it’s useless to speculate further.

“Hugh Everett thought bigger. He suggested that the correct quantum function for an observation should include experiment and experimenter. He took that a step further by showing that a proper quantum function would need to include anyone watching the experimenter and so on. In fact, he proposed, maybe there’s just one quantum function for the entire Universe. That would have some interesting implications.

“Remember Schrödinger’s catbox with two possible experimental results? Everett would say that his universal quantum function contains a superposition of two component sub-functions — happy Schrödinger with a live kitty and sad Schrödinger with a disposal problem. Each Schrödinger would be quite certain that he’d seen the definite result of a purely random operation. Two Schrödingers in parallel universes going forward.

“But in fact there’d be way more than two. When Schrödinger’s eye absorbs a photon, or maybe doesn’t, that generates another pair of universes. So do the quantum events that occur as his nerve cells fire, or don’t. Each Schrödinger moves into the future embedded in a dense bundle of parallel universes.”

Cathleen interrupts. “Another question. ‘What about conservation of mass?‘”

“Good question, whoever asked that. Everett doesn’t address that explicitly in his thesis, but I think he assumed the usual superposition math. That always includes a fix‑up step so that the sum of all the pieces adds up to unity. Half a Schrödinger mass on one track and half on the other. Even as each of them splits again and again and again the total is still only one Schrödinger‑mass. There’s other interpretation — each Schrödinger’s universe would be independent of the others so there’s no summing‑up to generate a conservation‑of‑mass problem. Your choice.

“Everett traded quantum weirdness for a weird Universe. Not much of a trade-off, I think.”

~~ Rich Olcott