One world is not enough

On inaccessible universes and infinite planets.

Don’t worry, there are other worlds. There have to be. If there aren’t, then we haven’t yet made sense of this one. On 19 June, the celebrated science-fiction writers Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter will publish a new book, The Long Earth. It is based on an outlandish premise: that an infinite number of variations on our planet are hidden in inaccessible universes. If it were just science fiction, we could either welcome or dismiss it, according to our taste, as yet another example of the limitless human imagination. The trouble is, the whole thing is based in evidence. Worse, this evidence is now the bedrock of modern science.

First of all, let’s go to the roots of our physical reality. If you fire an atom at a screen containing two openings, the atom will go through both. It’s not just atoms; a molecule composed of 60 or so atoms does the same thing. Anything that follows the laws of quantum theory will do it. The only time this doesn’t happen is when someone is watching.

That we don’t get into a car using all four doors at once tells us that the weirdness disappears once you have a lot more than a few dozen atoms clumped together. No one knows why, and it doesn’t change the fact that the strange behaviour of the building blocks of matter is capable of breaking your mind.

No one knew this better than Hugh Everett, who started his career trying to solve this puzzle and ended up a chain-smoking alcoholic. Everett’s idea is now known as the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. According to this, a new universe is created every time a subatomic particle is faced with a choice of things to be or do. The ultimate logical consequence is that the universe is composed of myriad sub-universes, each subtly different from the one that spawned it. In this cornucopia of worlds, many will be utterly different from ours. There is, according to the theory, a world where Elvis Presley is the king, not of rock’n’roll, but of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

No one accepted the idea, and Everett responded to the pain of rejection by slowly self-destructing. Today, however, physicists take these quantum worlds seriously. And they are not the only strange fruit of modern physics.

Our best theory of how the universe began requires that it went through a ridiculous period of super-fast expansion, increasing in size by a factor of 1,000 billion billion billion in a fraction of a millisecond. If that is the case, the same “inflation” mechanism will cause other universes to blow up from tiny instabilities in the fabric of our universe. They pinch off and float away beyond our reach. And if you believe Everett’s theory, the activity of quantum particles in each of those worlds will spawn ever more worlds nested within them.

Forget reality

It might seem as if the existence of these universes would be unverifiable, but that is a supposition which ignores the ingenuity of scientists. Some have already worked out what imprint a collision with one of the inflated universes would make on the microwave background radiation that fills our universe. Having figured that out, they are now combing the universe for signs that we have touched another world.

It will be harder to verify the existence of the many quantum worlds. Some believe a better explanation for quantum phenomena is that there is no objective reality at all; nothing exists until an experimental observation brings it into being. But clearly, whatever Pratchett and Baxter have come up with, it won’t be as strange or unbelievable as the truth. 

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is out now in paperback (Profile Books, £8.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times