Consider the Alternatives

multiple parallel branes, often used as central idea of alternative universesTomorrow I’m shooting all day for a TV show that is going to focus on the idea of alternative universes (or parallel universes, if you prefer). Should be fun. The setting at least will be interesting (more on that later) and it ought to be interesting to see how the writer puts all the material together into a coherent narrative. Part of my job will be to try to emphasize that while parallel/alternative universes show up a lot in actual scientific discussions (and have done for a long time), we have not yet had anything like a good observational or experimental reason to believe in their existence anywhere other than in our imaginations. It’s vital to get this across (I hope they don’t just edit it out) because people are so willing to believe in many half-baked fanciful ideas – and this is one of them – and when they show up in a science documentary (this is (again) for the History Channel’s “The Universe” series, which has been very good) with actual scientists being quoted, one should be especially careful (as we were on the “Cosmic Holes” episode (with different filmmakers), which has proven to be rather popular, and is full of speculative ideas like travel using wormholes and time machines right alongside equally fantastic-sounding things, like black holes, which are in fact a scientific reality). The rest of my job will be to talk about some of the places where the idea shows up in modern thought, some of the reasons why, and some of the opportunities for solving various challenging problems (and maybe creating a host of others!!) can be afforded by such ideas.

All that aside, this reminds me of something else entirely – Do you ever have those days when you feel like you’ve accidentally stepped sideways into an alternative universe? I do. Recently, I had a huge dose of it. Sit back and I’ll tell you the story…

I had my bag stolen about a month ago, and for several days afterwards there as a quite displaced feeling associated it with this. Several key personal items that I always have with me were in that bag (it’s not a briefcase or book bag, but a handbag, in the sense that is puzzlingly reserved for women’s bags (for no good reason – I shall complain about this in a later post)), and not having them with me gave me a feeling of being not myself sometimes. This included things like my wallet with all my cards (credit, id, etc), and so there was the usual concern about having those misused (did not happen), but also – and much more crucially – the little notebook I always carry around with me vanished. I’ve been scribbling many of my thoughts and ideas into that since last July (and also simple reminders of the mundane), and so that was a great loss. More than anything else, I’d love to get that back. All in all then, I found myself wandering around with a sort of disoriented feeling for several days.

I was sitting in the cafe Intelligensia some days after the loss, doing some work, and there was a couple (a woman and a man) sitting near me. Now be sure to remember as you read this that I was still feeling somewhat displaced from the loss, as though I was not who I thought I was… as though in fact someone else was now me, in possession of my identity, and the cards and personal items to prove it – having never lost them… So, this couple. It is an important detail to note that the guy was about my height and build, well-spoken, black, and dressed in a manner that I myself might dress from time to time. I did that thing where I concentrated on what I was up to, but was listening with half an ear to their conversation because, well, it was hard not to. I was interested because they did not seem to be the usual people working on screenplays or loudly talking about their next movie project and so forth (as people seem to do with extra passion at that cafe as they drink their $4+ gourmet coffees (all the rage in LA now, you know) – and that price is sometimes just the drip coffee – small size). They were talking about a range of topics, and with an peculiar sort of interest in each other’s take on various things. I decided that they must be work colleagues at first, and then maybe that it was a business meeting…. but eventually I realized that it was something else entirely – a date!

Now, this was of extra interest since, of course, it represented a new source of data on the whole dating thing. Normally one just has ones own experiences to draw from, and then only from the one, somewhat biased, side. So I listened a bit more (I have no shame) and noticed something interesting. It did not seem to me to be going very well, as they were not making connections on a number of things. The funny thing was that I found that I preferred her answers to his, whether it was on trivial matters or deeper ones. An example of the latter was the issue of family. This was one of the things that clued me into it being a date in the first place. The woman asked the guy whether he wanted kids, and he said – very immediately – that he would definitely not, having no interest in kids. He in turn asked her the same question. She paused for a moment to take in what he said and then replied that she did indeed want kids, and to start a family. They spoke around this and other things for a while in what appeared now to be a sort of conversational displacement activity, but it was clear that the conversation had rather gone off the boil. Well, anyway, they spoke for a while, and to my surprise the conversation eventually re-engaged.

Then there was natural pause later on. The guy said “So, what do you want to do now? Move on to somewhere else? Get some food?” She thought for a while (as though weighing the pros and cons of this) and then said “Well, I could eat something, I guess…” They discussed options nearby (almost all of which would have been on my list) and then decided to go to one of them. Then, they got up and the guy said, “Ok, so I can put my bike in the trunk of your car and then we can go together”, and they walked over to his folding bike which had been parked nearby (I had noticed it earlier, but did not know whose it was), retrieved it, and walked away…(For those of you who don’t read the blog regularly (and where have you been?!), and so have not heard me speak of it, I use a folding bike* on most days (but not that day) and hardly ever run into anyone else using one…. and certainly never anyone who uses one fully -i.e. actually folding it up and so forth….)

What’s the point of the story? Nothing profound… just sharing that weirdness of feeling, in my disorientation, that I’d been observing an alternative version of myself, complete with folding bike, on a date (I’ve done that same thing by the way… bike into her car to move to location of part two of first date…), and feeling that my alternative self was rather sub-par on this date! (Or, maybe he was not – all a matter of perspective, perhaps.)

I’m sort of hoping I run into this guy again so that I can tell him that he was on my date and he totally messed it up! But I suppose that he’d (rightly) think I was insane if I did that…


the ever-fabulous brompton bike
*For the record, my folding bike was different from his. That’s a clue that it was not another me since I cannot imagine another universe where I’d pick anything other than a Brompton. Unless somehow they did not exit in that universe…..

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Consider the Alternatives

  1. Ed says:

    I haven’t thanked you for your patient explanation and recommendations. I’ve requested the Thorne book you recomended. In the meantime, I’ve checked out “Death by Black Hole” by Neil De Grasse Tyson, and “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Green.

  2. Clifford says:

    Excellent. Happy to help! Glad to hear that people are willing to take the time to explore this most wonderful subject… Enjoy!!

    Keep an eye out here for more recommendations of books, etc, on this and other subjects…



  3. Elliot says:

    Boy I can see the movie right now. You do in fact see them again and have a conversation over drinks. The woman winds up missing or worse and somehow you are the prime suspect. And somehow the stuff that was yours and is missing could exonerate you but….

    Sorry to take a real life experience and start to fictionalize it but with the parallel universe thing, I just couldn’t help myself.


  4. Clifford says:

    Funnily enough, similar plot fragments have passed through my mind…!!


  5. Ed says:

    I can hardly wait to find out how “stuff” can come together to make a mass large enough to make a black hole when the dark energy is forcing everything apart (at an ever increasing ratea)!

  6. Clifford says:

    Well locally it is not doing that. Dark Energy is currently only working on cosmological scales. Things on scales of galaxies and smaller are dominated by the local issues, such as gravity. This is why you come back to earth when you jump. You don’t fly away from it by some unseen expansion force. Neither do the atoms that make you up fly away from each other due to this. The dark energy is just not relevant. For the same reason (dark energy aside), you are not expanding, even though the universe is doing so on cosmological scales. In some future era, perhaps, this will change and it could become the dominant effect, but right now it is just not relevant for local issues on sub-galactic scales.


  7. Bilal says:

    This is something out of the “Twilight Zone.” Bizarre!!

  8. That’s a good story.

    Not being clever enough to have a folding bike, I have had the date situation in which I am having coffee with someone, am asked if I want food, and have to say “Sure, but do you mind holding that thought for 30 minutes while I ride my bike home, lock it, and get a less annoying form of transport to [place we plan to eat]?” Not nearly as classy as the folding bike.

    “Do you ever have those days when you feel like you’ve accidentally stepped sideways into an alternative universe?”

    We have a fridge magnet that says “I feel like I’m diagonally parked in a parallel universe.”


  9. Carl Brannen says:

    Actually that’s a nicer conversation for a date than I would have expected. From my understanding of the human race, a more natural exchange would be polite versions of, one the one side, “how much money do you make”, and on the other side, “what do you look like without clothes.”

  10. Clifford says:

    IP:- Thanks…. but I must respectfully object to a bike being called an “annoying form of transportation”. Boo! Hiss!


  11. In the context, it was deeply annoying — it interrupted my date! And no, I couldn’t just cycle to the place we were planning to eat, because then I would have had to cycle back — up the Bloody Great Massive Hill.

    But yes, in other contexts, I agree they are cool.