All The Difference

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For every reaction, an equal and opposite reaction. For every choice, an alternative.

Perhaps it was as simple as that. It wasn’t Einstein’s objection that so revolted you, it was Newton’s, that day decades (decades!) ago, when the lecturer stood before you and claimed that his chalked scrawls demonstrated the necessity of the Copenhagen interpretation, repeated that ridiculous claim that observing a system collapses the waveform, that whenever a decision is required Fate tosses a coin, again and again and again and again, and the doors of probability are slammed down around us and we slide helter-skelter, Brownian, dice-roll, along our arbitrarily-determined only-possible-path through space-time.


You chose to be here. There were always alternatives.

But that day – that day something caught on your soul, and the sheer philosophical absurdity of it drove you onwards, through the years of graduate study, running just to keep still through a century’s worth of mathematics just to prove your worth, the longer years of postdoctoral journeymanship under one dusty old fool or another, that longed-for lectureship that you couldn’t bear, with the endless paperwork and distractions and undergraduates who thought of you as authority (though surely you were not that much older than them?), through the professorship that you hoped would rid you of responsibility and yet just heaped on still more – and always the certainty drove you: this is not all that there is.

In the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics everything is permitted, somewhere. As you chose again and again the road less travelled by, you did so in the sure and certain hope that elsewhere you did otherwise, that at every turning another self hesitated, walked the other way. You relied on their being there, those weaker other selves, relied on their craven desire for the easier path. (Perhaps some of those other selves were told less often that they were brilliant; that they had a duty to show the world their worth?)

Of course, the choice was surely not always yours. There are worlds where society had no energy, or no patience, for mirages such as yours. There are worlds where the doctor did not smile, and say that the biopsy had shown the growth to be benign. There are worlds where your sister was not there, as your parents aged. (There are worlds where you were there for your mother, at the end; where your sister forgave you before the blood clot did its work; where your nephews are not strangers.) There are worlds where a speeding car put paid to it all, early on. But none of those are this world.

Here, you worked. You scribbled endless calculations in the moments between lectures and meetings, and in the evenings sometimes wrote more and sometimes simply sat and thought. Here you published first papers, and then books, and were lauded and envied by your colleagues and your rivals (one and the same, more often than not) for your insight. And it was here, in this world, that one ordinary day you saw it.

It was so simple, it was right there in the existing equations, you could have seen it when you were a graduate student if only you were looking properly.

Another moment, and you knew that to be untrue. Your solution, in its pellucid simplicity, is of the kind achieved by the bodhisattva who meditates for a decade gazing at a wall. No one unwilling to dedicate their soul to the task could have seen this. But it is there, and you have proved it: there are many worlds. There are more than ever could be counted, myriads, exponentially multiplying since that first moment when it all for no good reason began. Whenever a decision is made, whenever an atom decays, the world divides. You staked your lifetime on it, and it was true.

And there is still more: these other worlds can be made visible. There is no need for kilometres of tunnel under Switzerland; it can be done with little more than an optical bench and the contents of the undergraduate laboratory. And no one pays very much attention to the emeritus professor pottering around the building at odd hours.

You know already that the Nobel Prize will be yours, if you live long enough for the committee to argue themselves to the award. More than that: your name will enter the pantheon, you will be remembered alongside Planck, Heisenberg, Einstein. You need do no more.

And yet, you are not so much a theoretician as to consider experimental proof unnecessary.

And perhaps no one else will see quite how easily this can be done.

And still further: this is yours.

So here you sit. You have the window into another world closed before you, the experiment that you dreamed of: the one where the observer truly observes, does not disrupt the system, merely views events as they are elsewhere, and might have been here.

And yet, quantum mechanics requires that no action be without consequence. It therefore follows that that which does not change the observed must change the observer. You are not so hubristic as to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, but it is all that you have ever known, and it is what you have chosen, and it has been enough.

Do you look? It is a simple choice, as all choices are simple. There are only two possibilities: yes or no. And at this moment there is nothing left for you to do but to choose, choose which of the both you will become.

You stand. The world around you gathers, superposed, in readiness to divide. (And as it waits it fractures a billion billion times under the weight of others’ choices, though you know nothing of that.) And as you step toward the door, prepared to be the one who walks away, the thought occurs: if you were willing to sacrifice knowledge for comfort, why did you begin?

About the Author: 
An astrophysics researcher, living and working in the north of England.