In an infinity of universes, none of us are alone – except for one man.
There’s a theory, of which you’ve probably heard, that aims to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in quantum mechanics with the everyday experience of our lives. In that theory – that has no evidence, and never can – all of the possibilities inherent in the random nature of the universe not only can play out, but do, somewhere, somewhen. In this model, there is not one universe, but an infinity of them, each one branching and proliferating with each decision made, down to the tiniest subatomic fluctuation. So you and I, and everyone and everything else, inhabit a bewildering multiverse of realities, some of which are close kin, others strange and distant, where alien geometries hold sway and nothing that we could possibly recognise exists.
Would you believe me if I told you this theory was true? That every possibility you could imagine takes place, and each choice you made split off an entirely self-contained cosmos, identical but for a moment, three years ago, when you picked ice cream over fudge cake, or paused for a few seconds to check your hair in the mirror before you left the house, or used one word rather than another to convey the same idea in a brief conversation with a stranger. “Yes, it’s that way,” instead of, “Yes, on the left there.” Such universes are hardly worth thinking about, and it seems a waste somehow to create them at all – but then, the inhabitants of one of those close-kin universes would say the same of ours, and the multiverse has infinite patience for infinite variations.
What may comfort you – or frighten you, depending on your bent – is that, across the great bubbling foam of meta-reality, there is an infinitude of yous. There are an uncountable number of universes in which you exist almost precisely as you do here, and others where you are very close. In some, those parallel worlds spawned by your own choices and the choices of others that affected you directly, you might notice very dramatic changes if you could pass through the dimensional barriers even for a moment. These universes would be the most interesting to you. These are the ones where the-one-that-got-away did not, in fact, get away. Where you stayed home that night instead of going out, and so never met the person who changes your life. Where you passed the exam instead of failed. Where a friend lived rather than died. Where everything went to plan, or didn’t. The yous that exist in such universes are the missed opportunities that you dwell on every day, a tantalising notion of other possibilities. Who wouldn’t want to know what happened there, what roads might have been taken? And who, if they were to know for certain that these places did exist, would not derive some measure of assurance from it? There is another you – an infinity of them, in fact – who experienced every single possibility life placed before you (them?). It should please us greatly.
There is a man, in this universe, the one you and I inhabit, who is not pleased by it. He is not pleased by it, because he is unique in all the endless multiverse, in that every other universe beside his own, besides our own, is curiously free of him. Why should this be? How is it possible? Well, let me explain:
He is an ordinary man, living today, in a place that would be familiar to you. There is, in most respects, nothing at all remarkable about him. His life is pleasant but dull, he is neither handsome nor ugly, stupid nor smart, rich nor poor. Nothing much has happened to him, compared to many (or even most) and perhaps that is what’s responsible for his curious and wholly unprecedented singularity. Let’s begin at the beginning – the very, very beginning – because that is where this man’s first choice was made, not by him, but for him. In the hot, opaque early universe, in the nanoseconds after the Big Bang itself, a wisp of cosmic radiation was created and, simultaneously, not created by a decaying atom. In the universe in which it was created, for the next thirteen billion years, it travelled through the vacuum of space until, by sheer chance it passed through the region occupied by a planet called Earth. By chance, its universe was one of the universes in which this man had been conceived (for you see, only one of millions of sperm cells can create you, so in many closely parallel universes, an unborn sibling of yours exists in your place), and already the zygote destined to grow into the foetus destined to be born as this man was splitting and growing. The cosmic ray passed into the Earth’s atmosphere (and was also deflected by the magnetosphere, in some other universe), into the body of the man’s mother, through her abdomen and, by sheer chance, fragmented a chain of chromosomes so that, in the universe where this event took place, the zygote died, and the pregnancy ended before either parent was even aware of it, and the man was never born.
Now here, look, a short time later, in our own universe: the man is a child. His parents have moved house and many things are in boxes. The mother nurses her young son and glances to her feet, where two of the boxes are open, still to be sorted into new places in the new home. She does not see – for she has looked at the wrong box – the reminder about the young boy’s vaccinations. In five years, in that universe, the child will catch a preventable disease and die. But, happily, that isn’t our universe: here, the boy was vaccinated, and lived, and grew into this man.
Later, a bully at school decides (and does not – you see how this works now, I’m sure) to punch with his left hand rather than the right. It hits the boy on the side of his head, causes a ringing in his ears for an hour or so, and is forgotten. Ten years later, a blood clot in his brain, caused by that old childhood injury, causes a fatal haemorrhage. In our universe, of course, the bully used his right fist, and did no lasting harm.
Look at this young man, in love, making a rash decision with his girlfriend. “Don’t worry about it,” she tells him, “you don’t need one; it’ll be fine…” It isn’t fine: he contracts a disease that, years later, will cause the complication that kills him. Here, he lost the girl, but lived.
Another woman, when he is older, leaves for another country. He has to decide whether to go after her or not. The plane crashed, killing everyone on board. In one universe he was with them, in ours he was not.
A step off a kerb, a swerve in the road, a missed patch of ice on a solitary walk, a brick that might have fallen, a cut that could so easily have become infected. At each of these innocuous forks in the road, a version of this man was snuffed out, erased from his universe, while ours continued on his merry way, never knowing how close he had come to annihilation. But always a sense of strangeness dogged him, a feeling that something was different about him. He looked over his shoulder, seeing shadows and ghosts, and every now and then a chill passed through him.
Because, you see, where you and I are accompanied, silently and unknowingly, by an infinity of fellows in whom we would recognise ourselves had things been but a little different, separated from us by chance and the paper-thin walls of reality, this man was absolutely alone. There were no possible lives for him save the one he had, no places where different versions of him prospered or failed; there was only him, in a universe that was just his own, unique in all the multiverse. For, in an infinity of possibilities, there must always be the chance of something wholly unprecedented, something which seems utterly impossible, but which – by dint of mathematics – is technically (and factually) not.
Now this man waits at the kerbside again. He steps into the road and glances…which way? Left, and he sees all is clear and walks on. Right, and the car hurtling towards him is spotted and he jumps back, wide-eyed, thanking his lucky stars he saw it in time. The universe divides again, and still he is alone, for in another world, there was a screech of brakes, a thump of a body, and blood.
He reaches the station, queues for a ticket. The woman at the counter smiles and she says (as she says to everyone at this juncture in this universe and in the cluster of universes where she, or a version of her, exists and has this job and works this shift on this day), “Hello, how are you today?”
The man stops, and he thinks about the question, perhaps for the first time. He gets another of those chills. “Lonely,” he says after a moment.