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Fringe and the Search for the Multiverse

on Wed, 01/12/2011 - 00:00

The FOX drama Fringe initially began life as a supernatural crime drama following an elite FBI task force exploring unexplained events on the edges of fringe science. Each week, Special Agent Olivia Dunham and her handpicked civilian team of Dr. Walter Bishop and his son Peter investigated these phenomenons in a “mystery-of-the-week” format that slowly developed into a more nuanced storyline involving a parallel universe waging war with our own. The existence of this alternative reality has its roots in the pilot episode of Fringe when Walter Bishop tells Olivia Dunham that he can explain any discrepancies in Peter’s medical records. When Dunham replies that she did not find any discrepancies, the elder Bishop shrugs it off. Little clues throughout the first season, however, hinted at a larger narrative until it was finally revealed in the season finale that Peter was unknowingly plucked from that parallel universe, kidnapped at a young age by Walter after his own son died from a rare disease.

“When Belly and I were younger men, we regularly ingested large quantities of LSD,” Walter explains in regards to himself and former lab partner William Bell. “We became convinced what we saw on the drug was real. We believed that we were catching glimpses of another reality, another world just like ours but slightly different. Populated by slightly different versions of ourselves.”

While the parallel universe on Fringe may initially appear as a fictitious storytelling device, in actuality the existence of parallel universes, alternative realities and multiverses are now becoming commonly accepted as fact by mainstream scientists. “A dramatic change that has occurred over the past twenty years or so is that such ideas are now treated seriously within the scientific community, and are no longer seen as the wild-eyed imaginings of theorists who have been reading too much science fiction,” author John Gribbin writes in his book In Search of the Multiverse (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). “There is a growing body of evidence, increasingly difficult to ignore, that there really is more to the world than the Universe we can see directly.”

While it was LSD that made Walter Bishop and William Bell aware of the existence of a parallel universe on Fringe, it was a large amount of sherry that proved the catalyst for the real-world Hugh Everett. Upon officially becoming a physicist in the mid-1950s, Everett was celebrating the occasion with some friends when the topic of conversation turned to Schrödinger’s cat. Although the laws of physics operate by a set standard on a human scale, within the dimensions of an atom the rules are entirely different and are explained by quantum physics as opposed to the more common Newtonian version. Quantum physics, however, is riddled with uncertainty—electrons, for instance, behave as both particles and waves. Even more incredulously, if one would shoot an electron inside a box with two small holes at the other end, the electron appears to go through both holes at once even though it is only viewed as going through one.

The phenomenon led to what is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, which suggests that the electron only exists when it is actually observed. Erwin Schrödinger, meanwhile, found this hypothesis to be “absurd” and formulated his famous “cat” paradox to prove his point. If you put a cat in a box and close it, then shoot an electron toward two holes in such a way that the cat will die if the electron goes through one hole but live if it goes through the other, the Copenhagen Interpretation implies that the cat would be both dead and alive until the box is opened. The cat, of course, cannot simultaneously be both dead and alive, thus the paradox. A drunk Hugh Everett, however, proposed that the collapse of the wave function within the experiment—which allows one to determine where the electron went—does not really occur, thus literally making the cat both dead and alive at the same time forever.

“Both outcomes are equally likely so both are equally real,” John Gribbin explains. “The wave function does not collapse, but the entire Universe, including the observer, splits. In one branch of reality, there is an observer who sees an electron. In the other branch, there is an observer, identical to the first observer up to that point, who does not see an electron. Amoebas reproduce by splitting in two. If there were an intelligent amoeba with a good memory, before the split there would be one individual, but after the split there would be two individuals with identical memories up to that point, who would then lead separate lives developing along different paths.”

In other words, there would be two separate universes—one with a dead cat and one with a live one. Quantum physics thus suggests that at the subatomic level of an electron, the words of Walter Bishop during the first season of Fringe are not merely fiction but fact. “Most of us experience life as a linear progression,” Bishop suggested. “But this is an illusion because every day, life presents us with an array of choices. As a result, life should look more like (a tree branch as) each choice leads to a new path. To go to work, to stay home. And each choice we take creates a new reality.”

In the decades that followed after Hugh Everett’s drunken hypothesis, increased scientific research in the field of quantum physics allowed for a greater understanding of the subatomic world. String theory was one such major breakthrough, positing that instead of considering electrons as tiny spheres they should be thought of as “loops” that vibrate. This inevitably led to M-theory, which likewise suggests the existence of parallel universes through its postulation that there are a total of eleven identifiable dimensions of time and space.

“The most obvious relates to the image of our entire Universe as a flat sheet of two-dimensional paper lying on a table, with an extra dimension at right angles to the surface of the paper, extending upwards in the third dimension,” John Gribbin writes in In Search of the Multiverse about M-theory and parallel universes. “There is no reason why there couldn’t be another sheet of paper on top of the first one, and another, and another—or a multitude of three-dimensional universes separated from one another in the eleventh dimension.”

This would appear to be similar to the scientific work of Walter Bishop and William Bell on Fringe. If one would think of the sheets of paper that Gribbin’s describes as membranes instead, the words of Nina Sharp during the sci-fi drama’s first season take on a more reality-driven theoretical meaning. “Dr. Bell once posited that our world has soft spots, places where the fundamental constants of nature—the speed of light, gravity, the mass of a proton, for example—have begun to decay,” she tells Olivia Dunham. “As a result, in these particular areas, the membrane between the realities is thinner, almost porous. The Bermuda Triangle is one but there are others. And until recently these areas were extremely rare.”

Like all good science fiction, Fringe is a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific research run amuck. While there is no evidence in the real world that it would be possible to move from our existing universe to one of the co-existing parallel universes that quantum physics suggests exist, the creators of Fringe make the argument that the more driven we are to understand the world at a molecular level and manipulate the laws of physics, the greater the potential for that to occur. “We happened, Agent Dunham,” Nina Sharp continues. “Scientific progress, advancing technologies. Meddling with the laws of nature has hastened the decay of these constant fundamentals and increased the number of soft spots.”

Modern research may not have reached the point where the “fiction” elements of Fringe have become reality but many of the “science” aspects behind them are being incorporated into the mainstream nonetheless. “An infinite number of worlds allows for an infinite number of variations and, indeed, an infinite number of identical copies,” John Gribbin writes. “In that sense, in an infinite Universe, anything is possible, including an infinite number of other Earths where there are people identical to you and me going about their lives exactly as we do; and an infinite number of other Earths where you are Prime Minister and I am King.”

The words are eerily similar to those of Dr. Walter Bishop on Fringe. “We assume that our universe is the only universe but that’s not true,” he says. “There’s an infinite number of universes and in each of them there is a version of us. You, me, Agent Farnsworth, but each one slightly different. Changed over time based on the accumulation of our choices.”

And not just on Fringe, but quite possibly in the real world as well.

Anthony Letizia (January 12, 2011)

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