A Portal to the Multiverse
Author Blake Crouch tells the story of a man who invents a machine that can access multiple realities.
The following is an excerpt from Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch.
They clean me up, give me new clothes, and feed me.
After lunch, Leighton and I ride a service elevator down to sublevel four.
Last time I walked this corridor, it was lined with plastic, and I had no idea where I was.
I haven’t been threatened.
Haven’t been told specifically that I can’t leave.
But I’ve already noticed that Leighton and I are rarely alone. Two men who carry themselves like cops are always on the periphery. I remember these guards from my first night here.
“Its basically four levels,” Leighton says. “Gym, rec room, mess hall, and a few dormitories on one. Labs, cleanrooms, conference rooms on two. Sublevel three is dedicated to fabrication. Four is the infirmary and mission control.”
We’re moving toward a pair of vault-like doors that look formidable enough to secure national secrets.
Leighton stops at a touchscreen mounted to the wall beside them. He pulls a keycard from his pocket and holds it under the scanner. A computerized female voice says, Name, please.
He leans in close. “Leighton Vance.”
Voice recognition confirmed. Welcome, Dr. Vance.
The sound of a buzzer startles me, its echo fading down the corridor behind us.
The doors open slowly. I step into a hangar.
From the rafters high above, lights blaze down, illuminating a twelve-foot cube the color of gunmetal.
My pulse rate kicks up.
I can’t believe what I’m looking at.
Leighton must sense my awe, because he says, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” It is exquisitely beautiful.
At first, I think the hum inside the hangar is coming from the lights, but it can’t be. It’s so deep I can feel it at the base of my spine, like the ultralow-frequency vibration of a massive engine.
I drift toward the box, mesmerized.
I never fathomed I would see it in the flesh at this scale.
Up close, it isn’t smooth but an irregular surface that reflects the light in such a way as to make it seem multifaceted, almost translucent.
Leighton gestures to the pristine concrete floor gleaming under the lights. “We found you unconscious right over there.”
We walk slowly alongside the box.
I reach out, let my fingers graze the surface. It’s cold to the touch.
Leighton says, “Eleven years ago, after you won the Pavia, we came to you and said we had five billion dollars. We could’ve built a space ship, but we gave it all to you. To see what you could accomplish with unlimited resources.”
I ask, “Is my work here? My notes?” “Of course.”
We reach the far side of the box.
He leads me around the next corner.
On this side, a door has been cut into the cube. “What’s inside?” I ask.
“See for yourself.”
The base of the door frame sits about a foot off the surface of the hangar.
I lower the handle, push it open, start to step inside. Leighton puts a hand on my shoulder.
“No further,” he says. “For your own safety.”
“You were the third person to go inside. Two more went in after you. So far, you’re the only one to return.”
“What happened to them?”
“We don’t know. Recording devices can’t be used inside. The only report we can hope for at this point has to come from someone who manages to make it back. Like you did.”
The inside of the box is empty, unadorned, and dark.
Walls, floor, and ceiling made of the same material as the exterior. Leighton says, “It’s soundproof, radiation-proof, airtight, and, as you might have guessed, puts out a strong magnetic field.”
As I close the door, a deadbolt thunks into place on the other side. Staring at the box is like seeing a failed dream raised from the dead.
My work in my late twenties involved a box much like this one. Only it was a one-inch cube designed to put a macroscopic object into superposition.
Into what we physicists sometimes call, in what passes for humor among scientists, cat state.
As in Schrodinger’s cat, the famous thought experiment.
Imagine a cat, a vial of poison, and a radioactive source in a sealed box. If an internal sensor registers radioactivity, like an atom decaying, the vial is broken, releasing a poison that kills the cat. The atom has an equal chance of decaying or not decaying.
It’s an ingenious way of linking an outcome in the classical world, our world, to a quantum-level event.
The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests a crazy thing: before the box is opened, before observation occurs, the atom exists in superposition—an undetermined state of both decaying and not decaying. Which means, in turn, that the cat is both alive and dead.
And only when the box is opened, and an observation made, does the wave function collapse into one of two states.
In other words, we only see one of the possible outcomes. For instance, a dead cat.
And that becomes our reality. But then things get really weird.
Is there another world, just as real as the one we know, where we opened the box and found a purring, living cat instead?
The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics says yes.
That when we open the box, there’s a branch. One universe where we discover a dead cat. One where we discover a live one.
And it’s the act of our observing the cat that kills it—or lets it live.
And then it gets mind-fuckingly weird.
Because those kinds of observations happen all the time.
So if the world really splits whenever something is observed, that means there’s an unimaginably massive, infinite number of universes—a multiverse—where everything that can happen will happen.
My concept for my tiny cube was to create an environment protected from observation and external stimuli so my macroscopic object—an aluminum nitride disc measuring 40 μm in length and consisting of around a trillion atoms—could be free to exist in that undetermined cat state and not decohere due to interactions with its environment.
I never cracked that problem before my funding evaporated, but apparently some other version of me did. And then scaled the entire concept up to an inconceivable level. Because if what Leighton is saying is true, this box does something that, according to everything I know about physics, is impossible.
I feel shamed, like I lost a race to a better opponent. A man of epic vision built this box.
A smarter, better me. I look at Leighton.
“Does it work?”
He says, “The fact that you’re standing here beside me would appear to suggest that it does.”
Reprinted from Dark Matter. Copyright © 2016 Blake Crouch. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.