Thursday, 13 October 2011
Infinite (Im)Possibilities for Writers: by Rosalie Warren
In an infinite universe, anything that can happen does happen - an infinite number of times.
Of course, the idea of an infinite universe is a tricky (possibly an infinitely tricky) one to grasp, and there's no proof as yet that our universe is infinite. Some theories propose that we may be part of a multiverse - a (possibly) infinite number of universes embodying all possible physical laws and values of important constants like the strength of gravity. Many of these universes would contain little of interest (a low gravitational constant, for example, makes it impossible for galaxies and stars to form, so life is most unlikely). Other variants would look more like ours. There might even be one in which I don't like chocolate, though I'm not sure that counts as 'possible'.
And then there's the interpretation of quantum theory which says that when you open the box to reveal Schrödinger's cat, the universe splits into the 'cat-alive' and the 'cat-dead' version. By the time a few splits like this have occurred, you get a fair degree of diversity and some interesting narratives evolving.
Which brings me to the connection (there is one, I promise) with writers and writing.
If the universe really is infinite, then all our books, even our wildest fictional fantasies, are true. There is a universe somewhere, or perhaps a pocket of our own universe, where the characters you and I have invented actually exist - and do exactly the things they do in our books. And, in a 'neighbouring' universe, they make slightly different choices and perhaps write themselves into a better book.
This may all sound incredibly far-fetched. I am not an expert, though I did some physics at university long ago. These days, I'm a keen reader of those books that thrill you with the exciting bits of cosmology, quantum physics and neuroscience. They set my imagination alight... and nothing does that more than the idea that every work of fiction ever written has actually happened, somewhere way out there. I'm not sure why this thrills me, but it does.
As I sit and write, often feeling that I am listening in to my characters' conversations and observing their actions rather than making them up, the idea that I am tuning in to something real is a very powerful and poignant one.
I realise that the question of what 'actually exists' plunges one into some deep waters of philosophy. I'm going to stay in the shallows for the purpose of this post, but if anyone wants to wade out deeper, I'd love to know what you think.
Thanks to Brian Greene and his intriguing book 'The Hidden Reality' (Allen Lane, 2011), which gave me some insight into all this stuff and made me marvel all over again at the wonderful place in which we live. It seems safe to assume that the universe is even more amazing than our current theories tell us, and that, for me, feels exactly right.
[Photo of Earth from space by Terra satellite, image copyright NASA]