Welcome back to Gaming On the Fringe. In the previous half of this two parter I examined Bioshock Infinite Versus the Mandela Effect but I didn’t really get into the topic of alternate universes/multiverses. This is because that’s not really the purview of Gaming For Official Use Only.
That’s where Gaming On The Fringe takes over. Once again, SPOILER ALERT, as talking about this necessitates having to spoil a good portion of the game.
The entirety of Bioshock Infinite is based around the scientifically possible idea of alternate universes/timelines. The whole thing starts off when Robert Lutece develops a device that lets him communicate with an alternate universe version of himself, Rosalind, and together they develop a way to cross universes. The player is introduced to the pair and likely assumes they are twin siblings. While they act like it, they are in fact the same person from two timelines. It gets kinda squicky when it hints the two are closer than that. Does that count as masturbation?
What’s interesting is that the game also hints that the Luteces multiuniversal shenanigans actually damage the fabric of spacetime. No, that’s not a typo. As I mention in earlier articles time and space are the same mesh that forms reality. The residents of Columbia have become accustomed to “tears” forming that open to alternate worlds and some even explore them for useful items. However, this is not the only thing people are bringing back from the tears.
In one of the standard Bioshock atmosphere building tricks the majority of Columbia’s soundtrack is later 20th century pop songs redone in that early 20th century style. I find this brilliant as while most fiction would focus on stealing higher tech from alternate worlds – and Bioshock Infinite certainly does that as well – this features people just stealing music they like and repackaging them for the tastes of the people back home. While the Luteces are pulling bleeding edge science to take back to Columbia others are just stealing the music of the Beatles. This makes sense because except for the Beatles the last time the UK did anything else awesome for music was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
What is interesting is that for the most part Infinite is rather plausible with its alternate histories. I get annoyed by how many works of fiction go too quickly to the “ZOMG HITLER WINS” history instead of more interesting ideas. It goes further by adapting the Back to the Future idea of looking at possible futures for the protagonists. Part of the later plot is dedicated to finding a way to make sure Elizabeth doesn’t become the bringer of destruction that she is in one possible futures. Considering the events of later DLC this wasn’t the actual future since we know Elizabeth actually ends up in Rapture. This means that Bioshock Infinite actually looks at a timeline where that alternate future is the present. I can’t really think of any other media that looks at worlds where the present and our present are in different times.
I actually wonder if the tears themselves qualify as wormholes which theoretically could connect alternate universes but that’s another article. Using the tears to bring in items from other universes makes some sense as you essentially just swap out a given location for that same location in another universe that happens to have something more useful occupying the space. Since travelling a wormhole would keep inertia and momentum intact this would explain how items can just show up through a tear – they were already sitting there in some other universe so Elizabeth just swapped the space. Bioshock Infinite may be the only fiction that discusses alternate histories and then uses them as armories. To me, what’s even better is that all of Bioshock Infinite’s multiverse hopping all comes back to Rapture. From before the game, when they use plasmids to create vigors, to the end game to the DLC, all roads do lead to Rapture.
That’s a perfect segway to our physics topic. While alternate universes have been a staple of fiction as long as fiction has existed, it’s only recently that science looked seriously at the concept of a multiverse. They looked at it in such depth that they have even classified ways that a multiverse can exist. The relevant Wikipedia article features two systems of classification, but I’m just going to focus on Max Tegmark’s as it flows directly from our own home universe.
Level I: Extension of Our Universe
This is a fairly simple one that once you grasp the basic concept makes sense. Currently the visible universe extends about 14 billion light years from earth in any direction, but there’s reason to consider that while the visible universe is only 14 billion LY in radius the actual universe is infinite. This universe is not only infinite but is continually stretching in all directions, as we have observed our own universe doing. If the universe is infinite then by simple application of the Law of Averages anything physically possible will happen. That means that in an infinite universe there are infinite versions of you on alternate Earths far out in the cosmos. Even scientists who agree with this idea believe that any alternate universe that occurs in an infinite universe will be so far from our home that we would not only never reach but never see the light coming from it. Tegmark estimates the nearest “alternate universe” in this scenario would be 10 to the 10 to the 15th power power. Yeah, that’s a double exponent and for comparision a googolplex is 10 to the 10th to the 100th power. A googolplex is written as 1 with a googol of zeroes after it when a googol is written as 1 with 100 zeroes afterwards and is the source of the name of everyone’s favorite search engine.
Level II: Universes with Different Physical Constants
This builds off the L1 multiverse by having sections of an infinite universe by having portions of the stretching universe stop stretching and become bubble universes. The bubble universes can then become their own level 1 multiverses in a mind blowing bit of cosmology. The example used a lot is that of bread dough – when you stretch it small bubbles may form that expand and rip off the main portion of the dough.
I find it interesting that a level II universe is essentially just an extrapolation of what might occur with a level I universe and can itself make more level I universes. Essentially, a level II universe is what happens when the “multiverse” is just one single universe with infinite space that can have portions that become their own universes. Even more interesting, these baby universes may in fact have physics counter to the universe we inhabit. While the classic scifi trope of hyperspace may likely just be fiction, it’s very interesting to see it may have some truth behind it.
Level III: The Many World Hypothesis
While I could spend an entire article on how quantum mechanics works – maybe that’ll be another article – but a good portion of it rests upon probability. Essentially, every atom is actually a probability wave that is “collapsed” when observed and forced into its most probable state. You might be familiar with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which states that it is impossible to accurately determine both the speed and location of a particle, and this is in the same vein. What Many Worlds does is say that all of the other possible events occur simultaneously in other universes. This means that there are trillions of universes out there, and most of them are quite similar to our own.
Let’s look at the numbers briefly. The human race currently numbers somewhere around seven billion. The average human body contains seven billion billion billion atoms – no, that’s not a typo. Each one of those atoms could be ionized (meaning positively or negatively charged instead of neutral) or even missing and it wouldn’t affect that person. That’s how many alternate universes could be out there that are nearly indistinguishable from ours. That’s not to say that each universe can only have one change from ours, but it’s staggering how much could change and the alternate universe look exactly like ours. For a fiction book with a very clever take on this, check out the fantastic Old Man’s War series by John Scalzi. The ships in that universe get around the lightspeed barrier by not exceeding it. The “skip drives” simply pop you into a nearby alternate universe where you were already at the destination, and luckily the vast majority of universes are so similar you will never notice the difference.
Tegmark himself makes a good point about the differences between Level I and Level III multiverses that I really like: “The only difference between Level I and Level III is where your doppelgängers reside. In Level I they live elsewhere in good old three-dimensional space. In Level III they live on another quantum branch in infinite-dimensional Hilbert space”
Level IV: Ultimate Ensemble
This is the big one, literally. Tegmark basically states that any universe that could be described mathematically exists. The thing about that is that even a tiny change in any of the equations that describe our laws of physics would create VASTLY different universes. For example, author Greg Egan released a trilogy called Orthogonal that featured a universe where literally all that was changed was a negative sign to a positive one. This allows for a universe where the color of a beam of light defines its speed, FTL travel is actually possible and allows for someone to have time stop for them, and so much more. This is literally just one change. Imagine how much could change if there were bigger changes to the fundamental laws of physics. It would make for universes we in our universe could not even comprehend.
I’m going to go ahead and answer what you very likely could be wondering. Yes, in an infinite multiverse fictional universes we are familar with might exist so long as the characters involved adhere to the physics of that universe. Superman could not work in our universe, but perhaps he could in another. Granted, any universe which has physics that allows Superman would be much different than the one we live in. However, there does not exist any universe where Justin Bieber makes good music.
This article is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of multiverse theories, but a primer. We don’t even have a concrete idea of which theory, if any, is correct so I just went over the bare minimums for each theory. I highly recommend anyone who is intrigued by this article to research more, especially anything by Max Tegmark or Brian Greene. I hope you enjoyed this article, and maybe learned something. Thanks for reading.