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Everyday science

Other-worldy tales

13 Dec 2011 Matin Durrani
The 5th Dimensional Camera

The artwork The 5th Dimensional Camera, which explores the theme of parallel worlds. (Courtesy: EPSRC Press Office)

By Matin Durrani

I’m sure we’ve all go our own personal wishes for a parallel universe – perhaps it’s a world where physicists are flush with cash, the Superconducting Super Collider had never been cancelled and CERN press conferences discussing the search for the Higgs had a bit more oomph about them.

But writing in the December issue of Physics World magazine, Stony Brook University philosopher and historian Robert P Crease examines how the idea of parallel universes and parallel worlds also appear frequently in art and literature.

We’ve all heard of Lewis Carroll’s beloved story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of course, but did you know that Jorge Luis Borges described the concept of a “multiverse” in his 1941 anthology The Garden of Forking Paths? Or that Alan Ayckbourn wrote a series of plays called “Intimate Exchanges”, in which a single opening scene branches out into 16 different endings?

As Crease points out, the idea that parallel worlds should attract novelists is “perhaps not surprising” – after all, as he puts it, they deal with “events shaped by contingencies that unfold over time”.

But the theme of alternative worlds that are similar (but not identical) to our own, branching off from each other, has featured in films as well, including last year’s Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, which was based on the celebrated 2005 play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire.

It also crops up in the new film Another Earth, which was released earlier this year. Examining the consequences of a promising student who causes a fatal car crash, the film has unfortunately received a bit of a panning, being dubbed by the Daily Mail as “pretentious twaddle” and by the Guardian as “ponderous and contrived”.

Still, let’s not forget that multiple worlds have even inspired some sculptors, including Jon Ardern and Anab Jain of the Superflux studio in London, who created an interesting work called The 5th Dimensional Camera, pictured above, which appeared last year in an exhibition called “Talk to Me” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Members of the Institute of Physics (IOP) can read the article “Other-worldly tales” online free of charge via the digital version of the magazine by following this link or by downloading the Physics World app onto your iPhone or iPad or Android device, available from the Apple store and Android Marketplace, respectively.

If you’re not yet a member, you can join the IOP as an imember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year via this link. Being an imember gives you access to a digital version of Physics World both online and through the apps.

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