Burning Down Hilbert's Hotel

A screen capture from Riven. A great game about multiverses.

There’s an idea that’s been plaguing me for a number of years since I read Max Tegmark’s article in Scientific American. What if there are infinitely many universes that have existed for all eternity? Doesn’t that imply that everything is ultimately meaningless? From a human perspective, I mean.

Think about it. If all Hubble volumes are subject to Poincare’s Recurrence Theorem and we have an endless amount of time, that means all possible arrangements of particles in a universe, no matter how unlikely, are repeated exactly infinitely many times. That means there infinitely many exact duplicates of you reading this post scattered across all infinity and eternity. On the grandest scale, you never really die, you never really change and all decisions don’t matter.

So how do you write a gripping story in a universe like that? Larry Niven mentioned this problem in his story, “All the Myriad Ways.” Of course he was only positing a very large, but always growning, number of universes. With infinity and eternity, the problem only gets worse.

The problem for science fiction authors is that you have to posit some kind of threat, some kind of conflict, even if it’s just a mental one, for the protagonists to overcome. There has to be some kind of change. But, if for example, Pace exists, in infinite duplication, over the infinity of space and time. I can’t die. Nothing really threatens me because all decisions and ramifications happen all possible ways. There are infinite number of dead mes, an infinite number of live mes.

At this point we have to define what I am. I’ll posit here that any person from any hubble volume that has my exact same genetic code is a version of me. This rules out possibilities like an Inuit or Yoruba Pace-likes. Those Pace-likes would have at least a slight variations in genetic code. This also rules out female Pace-likes or Pace-likes with genetic diseases. However it doesn’t rule out some types of homosexual Pace-likes. Homosexuality is biologically caused but in many cases it is not genetically caused. Some forms of homosexuality are due to biochemical factors during development in the womb.

Anyway, aside from that limiting criterion, that still leaves us with an enormous “Pace phase space” (Say that three times fast!) to explore.

This ramification space would contain, variations of me that never moved to Seattle from San Francisco for example, versions of me that moved to Chicago, Baltimore or Kansas City, versions where my mother died and I was adopted by my aunt or my father, versions of me that were orphaned, versions of me that stayed at Microsoft and so on. If a Gaussian distribution applies there are some versions of me in horrible circumstances and some in wonderful circumstances. But note that this balance is impossible to change. I can’t set things up so that all breaks work out for an infinite number of mes.

Or maybe I can? Actually I’m very sloppy on the math. I’ll have to look this up.

Anyway, that’s the big question for a writer trying to build a story about multiverses. How do we create a conflict that matters? How do we threaten to burn down Hilbert’s Hotel?

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2 Responses to Burning Down Hilbert's Hotel

  1. well this infinite progressions of possible Paces has my mind reeling– so now I know that all of the characters I have met over the years in Udra are real… even if you cant genetically be Izzy, somewhere there is actually a Pace with the same character traits– somehow I find this reassuring and I feel less threatened by the rodent menace! Of course it also means that somewhere you are conspiring with Bernie Madoff, doing intelligence work for the North Koreans and being a Koranic Scholar in the holy city of Qom as well as being a muscle beach pinup boy and minion of Pee Wee Herman, Senator of Texas and one day president of the Untied Federation of Planets! Yay! it is good to have an imagination (at least a balanced one) 🙂

  2. I want to comment on a previous post (all humans are vermin etc) but the comments field is no longer there on the older posts… you need to fix this as I have something to say!!!

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