Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fact in Fiction?

Today's post is not a debate about whether or not to write true stories or imagined stories. It is a little more existential than that. What I am interested in is the idea as to whether fiction can also be fact. Again, I am not referring to the age old 'life reflecting art' debate. What I am considering is a little more ambitious than that.

To begin, you will have to take a little trip with me outside of our solar system (don't worry, I will bring this back to writing - eventually). We then need to carry on past the edge of our galaxy, the milky way.  A good way to do this is to simply imagine a camera, focused on the Earth, rapidly zooming out to reveal a much greater sphere of vision.

Now that you can see the galaxy (picture it as a big swirly, spiral), I want you to keep on travelling outwards, until our galaxy becomes nothing more than a modest speck amidst a hundred billion similar entities. What you should now be picturing in your head is a giant black dinner plate (the diameter will be roughly 84 billion light years across), covered in billions of grains of salt, sprinkled fairly evenly over the surface. This is the Observable Universe.

The difference between the Observable Universe and what would be more commonly referred to as 'the universe', is that quite literally, it is the part of the universe that we can observe (provided that we have a very, very, powerful telescope). This is because for an object to be visible, it has to have been touched by light and light has only had so much time to travel since the beginning of time.

Some people will be throwing up their arms in disagreement at this point, because it is a commonly known fact that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old. If this is the case, then why is the Observable Universe not 27.4 billion light years in diameter (remember, the light spreads out in all directions, so the distance that it travels is the radius and not the diameter. If a path goes 10 miles to the east and and 10 miles to the west starting from a central point, the path will be 20 miles long)? Before I carry on with my thought experiment, I should perhaps explain why it is 84 billion light years and not 27.4 billion.

Einstein may have taught us that nothing can accelerate faster than light and whilst this is technically true (nothing can cross the light barrier), there are still things that do indeed move faster. The expansion of space is the prime example. If you picture light travelling through the universe like drawing a line across a balloon this will become more clear. What you have to imagine is that the balloon is being inflated as the line is drawn. When this happens, it stretches the length of the line that has been drawn in direct proportion to the expansion. It is effectively the same with light in the universe. Space stretches the distance that light has travelled and hence we end up with an observable universe that is 84 billion light years across as opposed to 27.4 billion.

Now we have cleared that up, I will return to my thought experiment. I want you to now try and imagine what exists outside of the observable universe. If you are having trouble, then try to imagine the perspective of an alien being living on the edge of our observable universe. What would they see? They would actually see the same as we do - a universe that expands outwards to a distance of 42 billion light years in every direction. What we now have is two "bubble" universes that are like two interlocking circles. The most important thing is that this shows us that what is outside of the observable universe is exactly the same as what is inside. As our internal camera pans out further, we find a wider universe that is infinite in its scope, where any particular point is surrounded by one of these observable bubbles.

So what does all of this mean exactly? Well, given that each of these "bubble" universes is of finite size, it means that there is only a finite amount of matter that can be contained within each one. A finite amount of matter in a finite space, means in turn, that there are a finite number of combinations in which the matter can be arranged. Since there are an infinite number of these bubble universes in the greater expanse of the universe as a whole, then logically every possibility must exist somewhere. It is exactly the same principle as the old saying about an infinite number of monkeys sat at an infinite number of typewriters.

Once you have let the above thoughts sink in, I want you to consider the implications. Effectively, if the universe is infinite (current scientific understanding greatly implies that it is) then everything that is possible will exist, somewhere. There will be an infinite number of worlds that have evolved exactly as ours and with every variation that goes with it. Somewhere, you are king of the world (as is everybody else, although not all on the same planet). You will be married to everybody else in existence (again, not all at the same time) and rather mundanely, there is an exact duplicate of you, sitting in an exact duplicate of Earth, reading an exact duplicate of this blog, but the one difference is that they are wearing different socks.

Now, earlier I promised that I would relate this to writing, so here goes. Basically, if your novel is set in the real world (ie, follows the fundamental laws of existence) and is free of plot holes, then somewhere in this vast and ridiculous universe, it will be played out for real. Your characters really will exist! This is not some plot to a weird book, it is actual science (there has been a lot written on the subject by people much, much more clever than I).

So, there you have it. What is a made up story to you, is actual real life to your characters, wherever they may be (I would not advise looking for them as the universe is a really big place and you will almost certainly get lost). Of course, what this also implies is that in some way, we writers are all Gods. We have merely to think it and by some bizarre cosmic coincidence the universe will make it true.

Before you get carried away however, remember that all this really means is that you are just another monkey sat at a typewriter like all of the rest of us. Better still, somebody out there will most probably be writing your life story. Let's just hope that they decide to give it a happy ending.*

*The above theory is based on an actual scientific hypothesis, which for obvious reasons (we will never be able to see beyond our own "bubble") it can never be proven. In a way, this technically brings it into the sphere of faith rather than science. I learned of it through an excellent book by the acclaimed science writer, Marcus Chown: The Never Ending Days of Being Dead, a truly remarkable and easy to follow peek into the world of Quantum Physics.

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