Tales From The Industry XXV – Parallel Universes

While most of the episodes of the History Channel’s The Universe series are firmly about scientific knowledge of the universe that has been tested and verified (from planetary science, to solar physics, to stellar evolution, and various topics in cosmology, and so forth), they also like to treat topics that have a higher component of more speculative material. This is of course fine, as long as it is made clear what is speculation, and what is established. Recall that I took part in a really fun episode called Cosmic Holes, which talked about white holes and wormholes -entirely speculative objects – right alongside the physics of black holes, objects that we know are physically realized in our universe. (See here, here, and here.) I think that Laura Verklan, the writer/director, did a really excellent job of separating out the speculative from the established. Similar things can be said for the episode Cosmic Apocalypse, done by writer/director Savas Georgalis (see here), which focused on scenarios about how the universe might end, given what we have already established about how it was in early times and how it is now.

I’m hoping that the upcoming (tonight!) episode entitled Parallel Universes will also be a nice and clear piece of work discussing the speculative ideas concerning the possibility of parallel universes – what the ideas are, why it is a fun idea, what it means, and (very importantly) that it is so far entirely speculation with not a shred of evidence for a parallel universe!! I’m a bit worried, if I’m honest, since this is a topic that is so easily seized upon by nutcases and sensible people alike, and is, in various forms, the fodder of so much charlatanism and mystical mumbo-jumbo. Any program in a science series on this sort of material has to be doubly careful -triply- to not give people an excuse to say that “the scientists have verified this”.

Why am I slightly worried? Well, I did not see a final cut of the show and so don’t want to go over the top here, but an early rough cut I saw did seem to potentially suffer from a problem these shows can sometimes have: A collection of practicing scientists are very carefully making comments about what is known, unknown, likely, and unlikely, and so forth, and then much of that care can be undermined by the interspersing of their remarks with clips of every physics documentary filmmaker’s favourite go-to guy who can be relied upon to say wild and wonderful things – Michio Kaku.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’ve nothing against Kaku and he seems like a very nice guy, and I think he has done some excellent and fun work for these sorts of programs (such as last night’s Einstein documentary), but there are times when his more, er, excited and unguarded remarks can be dropped into a place in the program that just doesn’t always help the business of being careful about a bit of science. Often (perhaps always?) it is not his fault – a filmmaker who does not realize how crucial a point is may get to a point where they must choose between inserting:

  • (a) a clip of those of us trying to be careful and not make wrong and/or sensational statements, and
  • (b) a clip of the distinguished gentleman with the infectious enthusiasm, waving his arms about and telling you wonderful sounding things,

… and is 99 times out of 100 going to choose option (b) if none of those people from (a) are there to help guide them. This is of course why I always hope (as I have discussed here previously) that these shows are made in a collaborative mode between the scientists and the filmmakers (rather than just be a bunch of edited together clips of scientists put together to tell a fanciful tale), and overall I think that the various filmmakers for this series have done a good job of that collaborative mode. I don’t know what the overall final balance is like in this show, and I got a sense from writer/director Andy Papadopoulos that he is a careful guy who understands the key points of the material… but I worry slightly since it is easy to get the emphasis wrong on such a delicate topic. But then I worried about the Cosmic Holes episode a bit, and the Cosmic Apocalypse one too, before I saw them and they turned out fine. So we shall see.

I also did notice in the rough cut that there were a couple of places where I’d have preferred a bit more of a reminder that string theory (a framework where some of these speculative ideas about parallel universes has recently been re-discussed in scientific -but yes, still speculative- circles) is itself an unestablished and under-developed theory that could well be cast aside one day in favour of something else. I stressed this point in the course of our shooting, but don’t know how much this got through.

Overall, I must say that I might be over-concerned, and I should give due credit to the program makers for trying to tackle this interesting topic at all. This was difficult material to make a good program about, and from what I’ve seen, Andy Papadopoulos did a really good job of assimilating it and telling a good story. I’ll be curious to see the final cut.

We filmed a lot of fun material for it way back in April, using a really great location – Venice beach here in LA.

venice beach parallel universe shoot

I was able to comment on and develop some of the background ideas on which other scientists would build, and I think also filmed some more general material talking about how interesting the idea of parallel universes is, while walking along the boardwalk, mentioning that a parallel universe could be as close to us as just a few millimeters away – all around us in some sense. venice beach parallel universe shootThis was particularly amusing to do since we had a number of the usual Venice beach weirdos around us (some who may well be from one of those parallel universes) and of course a fortune teller who probably claims to be in communication with one of them. In fact, Andy was tempted to cut away from me as I was talking about parallel universes while walking on the boardwalk and let the camera rest on the mystic, and we all giggled at the idea, but I don’t think we did that in the end – but who knows? I’ll see in the final cut.

One of the several nice things Andy did for the show was to bring on a group of musicians to play while I was talking about string theory. This was really great since I realized then that I was able to illustrate a really key aspect of the story of the development of string theory using the presence of the musicians.

venice beach parallel universe shoot

The point (as I’ve mentioned here before) is that in the middle ’90s we (the field) realized that the theory was much richer than just containing fundamental vibrating strings – we realized that vibrating membranes are important too, and also higher dimensional extended objects (generalizing membranes, just called “branes” for short). This made the theory much richer and in many ways more interesting. It was like having a guitar in a band be joined by drums, and by bass, giving a wider range of expression that the band can achieve. This additional richness of the theory is the foundation for the possibility that our entire universe itself may be one of these branes (three spatial dimensions and one time, like a membrane – e.g., a sheet of paper – has two spatial dimensions and one time), moving in a higher dimensional spacetime, which leads to the idea that there’s no reason to think that there’s only one such object moving around. Aha: parallel universes – at least, that’s one of many (inequivalent) routes to that idea.

Anyway, I’m very curious to see how all of this is put together in the show. It should be fun. It is tonight (Tuesday) at 9:00pm E/P (8:00pm C). Enjoy!

[Update: Please please please see my remarks in the comments below!]

[Update: Please see my report and thoughts on the newly announced Science and Entertainment Exchange here.]


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31 Responses to Tales From The Industry XXV – Parallel Universes

  1. (a) a clip of those of us trying to be careful and not make wrong and/or sensational statements, and
    (b) a clip of the distinguished gentleman with the infectious enthusiasm, waving his arms about and telling you wonderful sounding things,

    I think there’s a lot to be said for being infectiously enthusiastically sceptical about speculative ideas. Half of the public want to believe, sure, but the other half seriously get off on having their own scepticism confirmed by someone cool and well-informed.

  2. Jude says:

    Also, you’re just one source of information. If they become intrigued by what Mr. Infectious Guy says, they may investigate further and realize that his off-hand commment is so speculative that it’s crazy (or unprovable). I first heard Robert Bakker’s theories about dinosaurs on some science program and his enthusiasm caused me to read his book and explore other theories, and heck, I don’t even really care about dinosaurs all that much.

  3. Tommy says:

    I’ve noticed similar things myself. In the process of being interviewed for an upcoming magazine article on some aspects of our work on colliding bubble universes the interviewer was on a line of questioning where I could sense she wanted me to say something much bolder than I was comfortable with. You want people to get your enthusiasm but to me at least, its just as important for people to understand you’re speculating and some care is required.

    Its true some seemingly “out there” ideas end up being true, but for each of those there are dozens that have to be discarded. Many in the media either don’t realize that, or more likely are just trying to write/produce the most interesting and entertaining article/show they can. For a scientist, I find its a slippery slope and a lot of care is required.

  4. Clifford says:

    Thanks Robert, Jude. Good points.

    Tommy. Yes indeed. That’s why these things are best as a collaboration… the belief that for it to be entertaining you have to go a bit wild is sometimes annoying. In these programs and also in drama that contains science, it would be nice if we could get across the message to film-makers that you don’t need to make up stuff – the science is already full of wild and wonderful things that are true, if only they’ll give us a chance to explain it to them, and help them tell the story!

    It is a thin line, with setbacks and annoyances from time to time, but it is a path worth keeping trying to tread for the greater good of science awareness and education, I think.



  5. Tommy says:


    I couldn’t agree more. I also find myself wishing for a documentary or article that accurately portrays the process of science at the cutting edge. That is, some scientists making speculative predictions and other scientists disagreeing and the debate that goes back and forth, be it on the arXiv or over coffee, talks etc. These debates can get very, um, spirited, but rarely are they personal. What’s more, they can be extremely exciting. Too often I find people I chat with who think science is done as presented in textbooks, where one law or theory follows directly from a previous one, ad infitum, yawn. Actual science, and the process by which it is done is so much more exciting than that. As you say, there’s really no reason to make stuff up. The real thing is so much more interesting and dare I say compelling than many people realize.

  6. Elliot Tarabour says:


    I am working on a project that attempts to capture exactly what you are describing albeit in a fictional context. It’s very tough to get it right but hopefully it will see the light of day at some point

    Stay tuned.


  7. Clifford says:

    Good luck, Elliot!


  8. Elliot says:


    Just saw the show on History Channel. I am not a huge fan of Kaku but it was certainly entertaining if not a bit sensational. It seems that the editors cut it to make it seem as though just about anything was possible. (including the possibility of dinosaurs in your living room!!) Anyway good to see it and hopefully it will inspire young folks to learn more about this stuff.


  9. Clifford says:

    Oh, right… I remember “there are dinosaurs in your living room” thing. Oh dear. It is coming on in 8 minutes here, and so I guess I’ll pour myself a long single malt and prepare myself. I’ve still got faith in Andy, though…

    Amusingly, I see that a season one episode I contributed to, “Dangerous Places”, is airing (as a repeat) just before this new one. In that one, they go around discussing all the sorts of dangerous things you can find in the universe (black holes, galaxy collisions, AGNs, jets of plasma, and so forth)… a somewhat vague and maybe sensational premise to discuss all these phenomena in one show, you might argue, but on the other hand… it certainly gets people thinking about things, and maybe gets people excited by all the wild activity that is going on in that pretty sky they look up at. (And of course I should issue an apology to everyone who watches the channel for being on at least four shows over eight days… That’s really over and above the bounds of decency…)



  10. Clifford says:

    Got to first commercial break. Er… need more whiskey. There’s some good science embedded in there somewhere (e.g., Tegmark talking about inflation, and WMAP results and flatness and so forth (but the laser beams!?)), but the voice-over (among others) is taking serious liberties (like claiming right at the beginning of the show that scientists have evidence that there may be parallel universes…sigh. No, No, No, No. That was really not necessary.)…


    Need. More. Whiskey*.


  11. Clifford says:

    Ok… That’s it. I had a lot of fun shooting my stuff for this, and while I know that it is maybe really not polite to say this, and I really like Andy and the crew who put this together…but I can’t really defend this. They really really should have sent this out in time for us contributors to comment on. By time I saw the rough cut and sent in suggestions it was too late… I presume other sensible people contributing to this such as Ovrut, Lykken, etc, would have liked to have seen a rough cut of this and made remarks. It is really clear that the VO and script was written without a very good understanding of some of the basic concepts in place, and certainly not a careful regard for what’s accurate and what is blatantly misleading. Anyone watching this would think that string theory or M-theory is experimentally verified and a working tool used to study the early universe… I spilled my whiskey when they showed pictures of people working in (what looked like optics) laboratories while talking about “years of research into string theory…”.

    This is quite disappointing, and not as well put together, researched, and (crucially) consulted, as most of the rather good episodes in this series (The Universe). Perhaps Andy tried valiantly to put this all together, but he overreached by not asking us to comment and help him get the story right. It’s a classic example of what I mean what I say these things can be done well as real collaborations between the filmmakers and the scientists, rather than glued together clips of edited remarks with a misleading voiceover connecting them all….

    It’s such a pity. It could have been a fun discussion of some fun and thought-provoking ideas, with clear and regular indications of what’s true and what’s speculation. This is not that.

    Oh well. Not to worry. Got to pick it all up and carry on. There are good examples of how to get it right and so one must keep working to get more of them made…


  12. Tommy says:

    It happens. I for one get annoyed when writers refuse to let you see an article you’re being quoted on before it comes out. You always worry that it will be taken out of context.

    I caught of a bit of this and was similarly disappointed. In particular, the discussion of extra dimensions was downright frustrating, when they kept talking about all the dimensions being curled up small and then went right into the braneworld scenario, where the extra dimensions are generically large (hey in RS2 they can be infinite, but warped!) so the layperson would be left with the impression that braneworld scenarios are all about curled up extra dimensions. Argh, actually, double argh. And the discussion of eternal inflation was lacking, as was not tying it into the landscape. Oh well, we do what we can.

    Its too bad, because a very interesting documentary could be made on any one of these things, such as: braneworld scenarios, cyclic universes, eternal inflation/landscape, etc. All of these things are really cool, and while speculative do make some predictions that *might* be testable.

    As an aside, does anyone actually talk about level x parallel universes? Is this a west coast thing? 😉

  13. Clifford says:

    I have never ever heard of this “level x” business. I don’t know who says that. But what was with the laser beams?! Where did that come from? Not the burning a hole in the fabric of spacetime and escaping a dying universe to go to another (WHAT?!), but the shooting them out from WMAP in order to measure the flatness of the universe. What was that?! And did you see the red struts between the blue branes that were supposed to be the “extra dimensions holding the branes in place”? What was that?!

    This is all so sad because there’s so much, as we say above, good TV that could be made of this material if done right.

    Ok. I’m done with this. It’s very sad.

    I hope the “speed of light” episode next week is better. Each episode has different writer/directors, and so if curious, please don’t use this episode as a measure of how next week’s is likely to be. I’d say this was an anomaly.


  14. Elliot says:

    From a scientific point of view it was disappointing and somewhat misleading. But as I mentioned it might get some young people excited about studying these things. That doesn’t excuse the overstatement but perhaps some good will come out of it. Hang in there. For what it’s worth you looked good by the way.


  15. Tommy says:

    I think I missed the WMAP laser beam part, fortunately it would seem. And yes, the extra dimensions holding the branes in place was odd. But even more baffling was the lasers you could see from the SIDE when making a wormhole. This isn’t Star Wars. Also frustrating that they completely ignored the LHC! If anyone is going to see extra dimensions, its them.

    Argh, its just frustrating much of this stuff is actually very good science. As we both say above, braneworlds, eternal inflation etc. aren’t just magical mumbo jumbo, they are actual theories (or rather theories in development) that seek to explain real world phenomena and make actual predictions (for example, bubble universes are generically slightly open, etc.). As someone currently working on some of this stuff, to be lumped in with shooting lasers to teleport to other universes is really well, disappointing. Man am I glad I forgot to tell anyone in my family to tune in.

  16. Tommy says:


    Its a good point that this could lead to some young people getting involved. The frustration I feel (and I think Clifford shares with me) is that there is *no* need to “fancy” this stuff up. The actual, real science is already so interesting. Randall-Sundrum braneworld models are really, really cool. So are some of the things Burt Ovrut and others have worked on where branes collide and this replaces the Big Bang. The string landscape contains roughly 10^500 vacua! I and many others have looked at the possibility of detecting a collision between bubble universes. You can agree or disagree with these theories, and many others. My point is, you could do a show on these things and be honest about the problems many of these theories have and it would be more exciting. There’s just no need for laser beams shooting us to another universe or “sciency” looking guys wearing masks looking at things. That’s mumbo jumbo, its not science.

  17. Clifford says:

    Tommy: Exactly.

    Elliot: Thanks!


  18. Imam Yahya says:

    A sad story. I guess the obvious solution is to refuse to cooperate with these things unless you get a cast-iron guarantee that you can veto any crap.

    The real harm of this kind of thing is that it makes interesting speculative work look bad. We don’t want to go back to the bad old days when Phys Rev Lett etc would only publish boring papers.

    It’s important to understand that the word “speculative” has many nuances. I don’t think that Inflation is particularly speculative, but it leads to strange consequences. It’s not really correct to call those consequences “speculative”. On the other hand, the fact that an idea is really boring does not mean that it can’t be speculative. The idea, for example, that there is something new and important to be learned about BRST by dressing it up in category-theoretic formalism is extremely speculative.

  19. Clifford says:


    Thanks for your thoughts!

    No, sadly your “obvious solution” is not a solution at all. It will just result in worse programs. Filmmakers will just keep calling other people until they get scientists (or worse) will say whatever they want them to say. When it becomes adversarial, we lose. The filmmakers know that they can simply make stuff up and keep it entertaining and nobody is going to call them on it. We can jump up and down about it, and the process and the business is simply too complicated to trace things back to a particular piece of work. Also, the general public can’t tell the difference between made up or badly told nonsense and a good piece of work…. so they will largely keep watching and be misinformed. The science and the entire enterprise suffers as a result, ultimately, including the goal of better science education.

    The way to do it – short of starting our own production companies and TV channels (and who is going to fund that?) – is the way I and some others have been doing it. Contribute to these shows if you think that there’s interest in doing something in good faith and then do more than just show up and smile for the camera. There’s not much appreciation (or awareness) of it among our peers, but it is good and worthwhile work anyway, and it needs to be done. We (scientists – more of us than just a few) need to get out of our comfort zones and think of this as the hard work that it is and not just a chance to be on TV. We should, in my opinion:

    (1) offer to follow up and help with ideas
    (2) offer to chat more about the science and the work being done (suggest some fun entertaining *true* science they might use, or a fun analogy, and they will come back for more!)
    (3) offer to help further, such as later looking at a rough cut, or over the script (be cautious… don’t make it seem like you want to censor)
    (4) offer to be on call to help and chat if they need help with a concept or idea…
    (5) engage the filmmaker (when receptive) in conversation about how important what they are doing is – them being a conduit between the science and the public – and the great chance they have to inspire if they do it right… and how you can help…

    etc etc….

    Now some filmmakers won’t take you up on that (as happened here) and they will make a poor product. It is not because they are bad people (Andy is not, for example)… they simply did not get point (5), and/or did not have enough motive to make the call to get advice, or did not realise that there are scientists out there who would take the time to help. So sometimes bad products will be made. It is the chance you take. Others will, and will see by example that they can still make a good piece of work that is popular and enjoyed by the viewers. There are several examples of that in the “The Universe” series. Please see my discussion on this when I was describing the shooting of Cosmic Holes, which while not perfect (what show is?) was a pretty good treatment of hard material that become one of the most popular episodes. See my whole series of discussions of this stuff in the “Tales From the Industry” series. The History Channel did a really good thing by going in this direction and lots of teams of filmmakers went out and sought scientists to talk to and make programs under various topics. Some of these filmmakers went for more of a collaborative mode than the “random story plus clips” mode and the result was a hugely popular series that people love.



  20. Elliot Tarabour says:

    This may help. There was just a post on this over at CV.


    Looks like an attempt at a “border police” between science and entertainment.


  21. Clifford says:

    I was contacted about it. About to leave to go to it today, in fact. Thanks.

    (It is a related issue, but not entirely overlapping with the ones we’re discussing… seems that the focus of the symposium is not going to be TV documentaries per se, but larger projects more of the entertainment variety, and less of the educational variety… Note the name… Of course, the two are mixed up together, but all the same, the focus and pressures are quite different. But since I’m interested all all these aspects, (see, e.g. my earlier post on the upcoming Einstein movie – not Monday’s documentary) I’ll be going along.)


  22. Elliot Tarabour says:

    please let us know how it goes.


  23. onymous says:

    burning a hole in the fabric of spacetime and escaping a dying universe to go to another

    That sounds a lot like the origin story for Galactus.

  24. Thomas says:

    Hi Clifford,

    The laser + “extra dimension holding branes apart” thing sounds a lot like coming from Steinhart and Turok cyclic universe model (recently their book was out, “endless universe”).

    As far as I understand, in the book the universe is described as two expanding branes (we live in one of them- distant from each other with respect to an extra-dimension. There is a spring-like force between the branes, which might explain the misconception.

    The laser comes into play in a large scale experiment, involving several lasers arranged so as to measure the strength of gravitational waves -this is presented in the book as a way to falsify the cyclic model or to force the inflationary picture into making fine adjustments.


  25. Clifford says:

    Hi Thomas…. no it was not that (for the laser – don’t know about the other hocus-pocus). I think that your interpretation is very generous, but… no.



  26. Clifford says:

    Elliot, others, I reported on the event here:


    Yes, the focus is not just feature films, so that is indeed good news.


  27. Plato says:

    Being “the mechanic” I understand how this might upset you.

    If you don’t get it just right, it can lead to allusions with which you do not want the subject to be tainted. To be responsible?

    You might consider then, becoming the director?:)

    Elliot’s point about leading to people in reference to Kaku is my point as well. Many books have been written by professional scientists with a “point of view” and following that lead, helps one in the direction to find good teachers to explain the concepts.

    It’s what can be done with the concepts “afterwards” that you might take exception too, from a creative thinking standpoint?

    It’s okay to Dream and still be responsible. Collaborations with writers to bring the truthful aspect of the science into the living room under the knowledge of an “artist’s adventure” is part of what people like Penrose as a scientist constraint will work with an artist to understand how his principals might be used, “to see into the future?” What “it” means to have this concept and go with it.


  28. Belizean says:

    Downloaded the episode from iTunes.

    Yeah, it would be a bit embarrassing to be associated with this. But on the positive side, it did take the trouble to attempt to distinguish the various distinct meanings of the term “parallel universe”. This was an excellent thing to do. [In the literature, one must infer from context which meaning “parallel universe” is intended.] I assume that the “Level X” terminology is Tegmark’s.

  29. Neil B says:

    Well, here is a genuine consistency problem with “Many Worlds”:
    Regardless of whether you call the alternative possibility a literal “other world”, I in “this one” observe a specific outcome. If you think the other outcome/s must be actualized then it has to be “somewhere” in some sense of the term. (It’s gross because we are making more of the total integral of the WF over all spaces/?s combined, to have the whole particle “here” as well as the whole particle “there” – but let that go for a minute.) We still have to justify “my” finding various chances for the outcomes, even granting the bastardization of conventional statistics (one person confronting multiple cases in sequence) into the idea of how likely a random “version of you” will run into a given outcome in multiplications of a given trial. Well, suppose there are two possible outcomes, but the chance is not 50/50. I ask: OK, so how many worlds/?s are created in the split?

    The temptation above is to say “two” since there are two things that could happen. But suppose the amplitudes reaching detectors are 0.8 and 0.6. Then the probabilities are 64% and 36%. So now what, we have 64 “worlds” one way and 36 “worlds” the other way, or 16 and 9, or …. to get the right proportion of chance for observation? What number of versions is appropriate? What if it’s an irrational proportion? If you have infinite branchings, then how can you define “proportion” given such infinite sets? And even if you say, it really isn’t a matter of n specific separate worlds, how then does the proportion manifest if you somehow put “all” the particle into both detectors (in say only two “worlds”) to avoid collapse into only one of them?

  30. Belizean says:

    Neil B,

    I believe that the conventional answer to your question (dating back to the early 1980s) is that there is always an infinite number of parallel worlds among which the various possibilities are apportioned according to the norm of the wave function.

  31. Neil B says:

    Belizean, the trouble with “apportioning” an infinity of anything (I suppose, an Aleph null since these are discrete worlds and not a “continuum” is as I stated: such infinite sets (of any cardinality) are incommensurable, and there cannot be the required ratio such as 7/3 more of one than the other. It strikes me as extravagant anyway, and better to just admit we don’t understand how particles can be both spread out and localized as well.