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Phenomena, Comment & Notes

Today's physics appears to allow outrageous possibilities: faster-than-light travel across the galaxy, for example, or even our learning to make new universes to specification

In 1955 John Archibald Wheeler, then at Princeton (Smithsonian, August 1981), had worked out that in a space that is 20 factors of 10 smaller than an atomic nucleus, the vacuum fluctuations are so overpowering that, in Thorne's words, "space as we know it 'boils' and becomes a froth of quantum foam." Because quantum foam is everywhere, Thorne continues, we can imagine a highly advanced civilization reaching into it, pulling out a wormhole the size of a Wheeler space and enlarging it so it could be used by macrocreatures the size of ourselves.

Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at City College of the City University of New York, goes even further in his recent book Hyperspace. Kaku tries to make us at least a little comfortable with the idea of space having more than three dimensions. He recalls that as a child, he watched carp swimming in a shallow pool and realized they had no conception of the world above the surface of the pond. Later he goes on to the classic Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by a Square, a book written in 1884 by a clergyman named Edwin Abbot. In the book, two-dimensional beings live on a flat surface. They have no concept of height. Just so, Kaku writes, we have trouble with the idea of more than three spatial dimensions. But that does not mean they do not exist.

"Hyperspace," according to Kaku, merely means space with more than three spatial dimensions. Once this is allowed, he says, a lot of problems in physics clear up immediately. The incompatibilities between relativistic and quantum physics disappear, he continues. If hyperspace turns out to be real, then travel through hyperspace may turn out to be realizable, too.

OK, let's talk about practical benefits. We'll consider only one, the biggest potential payoff of all. Both science fiction writers and serious scientists have thought for a long time that the day will come, if we survive long enough, when we will have to leave Earth and even the Solar System. Now we have something new to think about: leaving this universe when it becomes uninhabitable. If the Universe expands forever, it will eventually end cold and dead, the Cosmic Whimper. If it stops expanding and collapses back in on itself in the Big Crunch, it will end in explosive fury. To the best of my knowledge, neither is expected to happen for tens of billions of years, but Hey! it's good to be prepared. By the time it happens, Harrison, Thorne and Kaku appear to be telling us, we should have learned how to step lightly from this universe into another one. Or make a new one.

In Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, a Wall Street bond trader who seemed to have the world by the tail thought of himself as the "master of the Universe." Just one universe? Small potatoes, I say. It looks more and more as though there are lots of universes, perhaps uncountable universes. And my joke and Professor Harrison's conjecture may turn out to be true: you won't be able to get your PhD until you've created a universe.

By John P. Wiley jr


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