Columbia University Press, 2014, hbk 360pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
The concept of ‘multiverses’ – i.e. the idea that the universe we live in is just one in a vast or even infinite collection of universes – has been around in some form or another for a long time. It can be dated at least back to Plato’s time and even earlier. But as the blurb for this book points out: While this idea has been the stuff of philosophy, religion, and literature for millennia, it is now under consideration as a scientific hypothesis, with wildly different models emerging from the fields of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and string theory.
One of the two best known modern variants is the ‘Many-Worlds’ concept, based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics and first outlined by Hugh Everett in 1957. This idea, met with scorn when Everett first proposed it, is nowadays taken seriously by many scientists. It is certainly a fascinating thought experiment to imagine that every time a decision needs to be made between two alternative realities the universe splits in two. Some popular fiction writers have had a field day with that one.
Meanwhile, cosmology’s version arises out of the theory of inflation, first proposed by physicist Alan Guth in 1979. Guth hypothesised, on the basis of his mathematical calculations, that the so-called Big Bang may well have been followed instantaneously by a process of inflation so rapid that it exceeded many times the speed of light and hasn’t even slowed down yet. The result of such an inflation has been likened to a frothing, ever-widening stream of coffee, with every bubble a separate universe.
If the inflation hypothesis was ever confirmed by actual evidence, the idea of multiverses might need to be taken more seriously. So this book could not have come at a more opportune moment in history. The first (digital) version was published in February 2014 and then the hardback in March. Just a few days later, the first concrete evidence for inflation came in from a team of astronomers at the South Pole. They had detected ripples in the fabric of space-time – so-called gravitational waves – the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. This discovery is almost certain to put the subject of multiverse right on the topical scientific agenda.
I found Worlds Without End a fascinating and very well-written book but definitely not a ‘light read.’ If you plan to tackle it, some familiarity with the history of philosophy, and a working knowledge of quantum principles and of modern cosmology would definitely be an advantage. But if you are interested in the gradual evolution of human thought about the nature of the cosmos, how all the various theories are related, how they differ and where they come from, it will give you plenty to chew on. In the author’s words: …this book looks back to the earliest documented sources on multiple worlds beginning with the Greek ‘Atomist’ philosophers in the 5th century BCE and then gradually working its way through to the present. The volume’s task is fourfold: first to give a historical account of the ebbs and flows of multiple-world cosmologies; second, to map contemporary models of the multiverse in relation to their philosophical, mythological, and even theological precedents; third, to ask how, why, and to whom the multiverse has become a particularly attractive hypothesis at this historical juncture; and fourth, to mark multiverse cosmologies as the site of a constructive refiguration of the boundaries between “science” and “religion,” Each of these endeavours contributes to the book’s central philosophical project, which is to find a way to come to terms conceptually with the multiverse.
An ambitious project indeed! But the result is a complete and thorough genealogy of the multiverse concept and a solid foundation for understanding where it is at now and where it may be going. It seems to me that Rubenstein has achieved all her four objectives and in the process has produced an enduring work of impressive scholarship.