08/19/2016

A Fast-Paced Thriller That’s a Tour Through the Multiverse

16:46 minutes

Everyone has a story. But Jason Dessen, the protagonist of the new thriller Dark Matter, has an infinite number of them. Dark Matter is set in the multiverse—a universe of universes, where everything that can happen, will happen. In one universe, Jason is a loving husband and father and a professor at a local community college whose promising research career was scuttled by family obligations. In another universe, he’s a celebrated young scientist who’s just created a miraculous machine: a portal into other worlds. What happens when the two Jasons meet? Author Blake Crouch joins Ira to talk about writing a thriller based on some of physics’ spookiest phenomena.

Segment Guests

Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch is the author of Dark Matter (Crown, 2016), and of the Wayward Pines trilogy. He’s based in Durango, Colorado.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow I read a novel this week called Dark Matter. And the main character is a guy named Jason Dessen. Now Jason’s in his 40’s. He’s a loving husband and father. He teaches physics at a local community college.

And once upon a time, he had a promising research career. That was before the demands of family and fatherhood intervened. You know that story, sounds like the plot of a lot of novels. Except Jason Dessen is also a prize winning scientist. He’s single. He’s a rock star in his field. And he just invented a miraculous machine, a portal to other universes.

So how can both Jason Dessens exist? Well, that’s easy in Dark Matter because it’s a thriller set in the multiverse. You know what the multiverse is. It’s a world composed of a lot of different universes, where everything that can happen to Jason Dessen or lots of Jason Dessens does happen. Blake Crouch is the author of Dark Matter. He joins me from Los Angeles to talk about writing a thriller based on spooky physics. Welcome to Science Friday.

BLAKE CROUCH: Hey. I’m so happy to be here, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Are you the real Blake Crouch or just one of many Blake Crouches?

BLAKE CROUCH: I’m one of– I’m one of many Blake Crouches. Another version of me got lost in traffic trying to get to the studio. And we’re just in dead air space.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you play a lot of with that in the novel. It’s fascinating. You’ve been, I understand, obsessed with quantum physics for like a decade or more?

BLAKE CROUCH: I have. Full disclosure. I took as few science and math courses as possible in college. So when I unfortunately stumbled upon quantum mechanics and fell instantly in love with this field of science, I was immediately intimidated and terrified of writing this idea. I have such respect for science that I wanted to– I wanted to represent the concepts as truthfully and with as much integrity as I could.

And that meant I had no idea what I was talking about for at least 10 years and had to read articles and talk to people and try to wrap my head around it.

IRA FLATOW: That’s what I do. Shh. That’s what I do, too. Did you have a role model in your writing career who you tried to emulate?

BLAKE CROUCH: Michael Crichton was and is a big hero of mine. I came to him later in my writing life through Jurassic Park, I would assume, as many people did. And what I loved about what Crichton did is that he took what would seem want to ostensibly to be hard science, something like chaos theory and DNA manipulation, and made it so accessible for the masses.

And what I realized is that he was also not afraid to just pursue things that interested him. And when I read things like Prey and Jurassic Park and more of his catalog, it just it freed me up. I thought, well, I love quantum mechanics. Maybe I don’t have a hard science degree, but I’m going to pursue this. I’m going to try to find out as much as I can. And, if I can find a great story, write something that will appeal to so many people.

Because I think what quantum mechanics actually says about the world, or the illusion of reality that we see, is so profound and so impactful that anyone who actually understands what it means can’t help but be obsessed.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you can see that. I know that reading Dark Matter, you can feel how much fun you’re having explaining this stuff. And even though it’s a thriller novel, I notice that you’re looking for opportunities to throw in quantum mechanics. Like Schrodinger’s cat is even in there.

BLAKE CROUCH: Of course. Well, Schrodinger’s cat is the conceit of the book. Instead of a cat, I basically wanted to put a human being in the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment.

IRA FLATOW: So instead of a cat, we have a person.

BLAKE CROUCH: We have a person. And one of the challenges with doing that was– so Schrodinger’s cat for your listeners who don’t know, is this thought experiment that was originally intended to disprove– or not disprove but show how counter-intuitive quantum mechanics is. You have a cat in a box with a source of radiation, an atom that has a 50% chance of decaying or not decaying. And if it decays, it breaks this vial of poison which kills the cat. And because in quantum mechanics, subatomic particles exist in multiple states– some would say multiple realities– that atom, if it has a 50/50 chance, is both decaying and not ticking at the same time. And because the fate of the cat is linked to this atom, it is alive and dead at the same time until we open the box.

IRA FLATOW: And your character then, like Schrodinger’s cat, is involved in a multiverse. In other words, you’ve taken the idea of multiple universes. And your character has invented a machine that allows him to go into all these multiverses at the same time, making sort of copies of himself.

BLAKE CROUCH: Well exactly. Making copies of himself is an unintended consequence that perhaps wasn’t fully thought through by my character which becomes a really fun plot element deeper into the book. But he invented this box that essentially puts a human being in a state of superposition. And as I was building the box, I wanted it to be as plausible as possible.

Of course, it doesn’t work. If it worked, I would have won the Nobel Prize. So I built the box as thoroughly as I possibly could. And then I presented it to a guy named Clifford Johnson, who consulted with me on this book, and is head of the USC Physics department. And I asked him to poke holes in it and tell me where I had missed the boat, where I had gone off into left field.

IRA FLATOW: With the version of Jason that invents this box, this portal to the multiverse, he’s kind of an evil scientist, isn’t he? That version of Jason.

BLAKE CROUCH: I don’t ever think of any of my characters as evil. I think every one of my characters is the hero of their own story. But he is driven and blinded by ambition, I would say. The Jason who invented the box made a very critical choice 15 years before the events of Dark Matter begin. He decided that instead of staying with his– this woman Daniela, who he had met. And they’d had this crazy, just supernova chemical attraction.

But instead of staying with her and making this life with her, he was going to go off and pursue science and spend hours in the lab, and basically make that his life’s ambition. And I think that by the time he creates the box, while he is incredibly fulfilled in his career, he looks back, like many of us do I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, and sees this other life out there that he walked away from, that couldn’t have been his. And I think it stings. And so he does a very, very bad thing.

IRA FLATOW: I mean the book is really a page turner, but did you worry that explaining all this physics stuff would slow down the action?

BLAKE CROUCH: I was so worried about it. It’s why it took so long to write the book. The first draft had so much more in the way of science explanations. The first draft had actual diagrams of dimensionality. And my editor wisely said, we actually shouldn’t have this in the pages. It might possibly turn people off if they flip to this page and think it’s a science text.

I was trying to find a balance between keeping the pages flying along, because that’s my first concern, is with keeping the reader thoroughly engaged, but also, I wanted to be true to the science. I mean, quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive. It’s such a challenge to wrap our brains around. But I love that. It’s mysterious and I didn’t want to dumb it down.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that quantum physics is finding interest by the public? I mean, I can imagine you pitching this idea to your editor and say, I want to write a book that’s going to be based on quantum mechanics?

BLAKE CROUCH: Well, it’s funny. I didn’t pitch it to anyone. I just wrote it. Because I knew if I just pitched the idea of, hey, I’ve got this amazing thriller that’s based on the foundation of how subatomic particles behave, everyone would just fall asleep at the end of my pitch. But I knew how to write it. So what I did is, I just wrote the first 150 pages and made everyone fall in love with it. And then when they asked me what was going on, I said, well, it’s quantum mechanics. And just trust me. It’s going to work.

IRA FLATOW: And did you ever talk to Nick Payne at all, who wrote Constellations which was sort of– it was on Broadway with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. It was sort of living in the multiverse the same way your characters are.

BLAKE CROUCH: No, I didn’t. I never did. Oh, that sounds fascinating though.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And I really love the way you were able to get around the most critical part of quantum mechanics, which is, the act of observation collapses all the other worlds, right? You’re left with the world we have. But you created a drug that Jason takes that prevents his mind from actually observing it. Right? So the worlds are all there.

BLAKE CROUCH: Exactly. I mean the box as I was building it, had two things that needed to be solved. The first thing that needed to be solved was exterior stimuli coming into the box and destroying the quantum state. And I mean, beyond the external observation, things like cosmic rays and neutrinos can pass through almost anything. And in theory, would make a quantum state impossible. Which is why you may notice that, I never say what substance the box is built of. And that was the recommendation of my physics consultant.

Because he said, once you say that, everyone’s going to flip out and start attacking the plausibility. So I never say what the substance the box is made up is. But the bigger concern is that once my human, or my cat, is inside the box, they are still observing. And one of the tenets of quantum mechanics is that observation creates reality. And so, they’re observing themselves and they’re interacting with the quantum state inside the box.

So the way I got around that was, I had my main character have a friend who was a neuroscientist. And he developed this mysterious psychoactive drug which locked down certain parts of the prefrontal cortex, which I say, because here’s where I get to take some artistic license, cause or are responsible for our power of observation. And once those are shut down, once the box is sealed, I couldn’t find any reason why I couldn’t say a character was in a state of superposition.

IRA FLATOW: You’re the cat inside the box.

BLAKE CROUCH: Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You know, different science writers have different rules that they lay out for themselves, where they can stretch the science and how far they’re going to go with it. Do have your own rules about that?

BLAKE CROUCH: I don’t have rules to the extent that anything is written down. When I start, what’s most important to me is finding a field of science that I’m interested in– it comes back to my admiration for Michael Crichton– finding a sense of the science that I’m interested in and wanting to talk about that, and wanted to educate myself.

And I think out of that respect comes some subconscious rules. For instance, I want everything in my books to at least be plausible. Something that maybe we figure out in 20 or 40 or 50 years. And the only difference is, in my books, there’s been some jump that’s been made that allows it to happen now.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I noticed you missed an opportunity for a spooky action at a distance–

BLAKE CROUCH: Huh.

IRA FLATOW: –in this book.

BLAKE CROUCH: Ooo, please tell me.

IRA FLATOW: Think about it. You had– how many different Jason’s did you have by the end? You had dozens and dozens of different Jasons. Couldn’t they all have been entangled and knew exactly what each other was doing at the same time?

BLAKE CROUCH: Well, I did sneak entanglement into the book but I didn’t hang too big of a lantern on it, because I thought it would be a little over the top cheesy. But, if you think about it, the relationship between Jason and his wife Daniela–

IRA FLATOW: Right.

BLAKE CROUCH: He even describes it in this letter he writes to her as he’s trying to find home. And he says, we were– we’re all matter. We’re all made in the fires of dead stars. And he describes that their connection is so powerful and so inexplicable to him, it’s almost as if their matter was entangled billions and billions of years ago.

That was my nod to entanglement.

IRA FLATOW: Gotcha. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

Talking with Blake Crouch, author of Dark Matter, a great little summer read, if you’re looking for something for the rest of the year to take to the beach or enjoy. It goes by very quickly. You’ll like it.

Is there anything left for you to talk about in a next novel that you might be looking at? Or are you done with, quantum mechanics for a while?

BLAKE CROUCH: Am I done with quantum. I am probably done with quantum mechanics for a while. I feel like I have lived in that world for more than a decade. And I’m really interested to dig in on something new that piques my curiosity. In fact, that’s what I’m– that’s where I’m at right now, in terms of figuring out my next book. Reading a bunch of articles and scouring the scientific landscape of emerging technologies, looking for that special thing that just checks the box in my head that makes me want to dive in and spend a few years.

IRA FLATOW: I know what it is. I know what it is.

BLAKE CROUCH: Tell me.

IRA FLATOW: It’s CRISPR.

BLAKE CROUCH: CRISPR?

IRA FLATOW: You know what CRISPR is?

BLAKE CROUCH: No, I’ve never heard of it.

IRA FLATOW: CRISPR is the latest technology to edit genes. You can–

BLAKE CROUCH: Ooh.

IRA FLATOW: –splice and dice genes. You can– they’re even talking about creating life forms now, synthetic life forms with–

BLAKE CROUCH: Oh my goodness.

IRA FLATOW: –tool. And you can mix and match genes and things.

BLAKE CROUCH: CRISPR.

IRA FLATOW: CRISPR.

BLAKE CROUCH: Wow.

IRA FLATOW: C-R-I-S-P-R

BLAKE CROUCH: Well, I’ll tell you. I’ll look that up. I will say I’m fascinated by 4D printing.

IRA FLATOW: 4D?

BLAKE CROUCH: I don’t know if you have–

IRA FLATOW: I know 3D. What’s 4D?

BLAKE CROUCH: 4D printing is creating a substance that can self-assemble but can also react to its environment long after its initial creation. So in other words, you’re adding the dimension of time to a substance that allows it to– for instance, a pipe that responds to water flow, to temperature, and can actually change and mold to fit the environment.

I have no idea if I’ll use it or where that goes, but that’s the sort of thing that catches my interest. And I’ll just try to read everything I can about it.

IRA FLATOW: What do you do when you write? Do you work out the science part first or the story line?

BLAKE CROUCH: Well, for instance, in Dark Matter, it started with the science. Because I knew that I had to have enough of a grasp on quantum mechanics to even be in the conversation. But while I was doing all of that research, I was also actively searching for that next story idea which I could marry to the science. And I had three story ideas occur to me over this 10 year stretch when I was trying to break quantum mechanics for myself.

One of which was, a man is lost in time. One of which is a man meets himself and what happens then. And the other was the idea of a box but it wasn’t the box in terms of the superposition. It was just a strange box and I knew I wanted somebody go inside. And I didn’t know what happened after.

But I loved the image of a box, in a hangar, with lights beating down on it. And it’s deep underground in a lab.

I tried to write each of these ideas on my own, in isolation rather. And they always petered out, because no one was big enough to support the full structure of a novel. And two years ago, I was in Chicago and trying to figure out what my next book was going to be. And suddenly, it was just like a lightning bolt moment when I saw how all of these three ideas fit together like puzzle pieces into the structure of Dark Matter. And I already had the quantum mechanics broken at that point. I was off and running.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if you understood quantum mechanics, you’re ahead of a lot of all of use. Blake Crouch is author of the thriller Dark Matter. It’s a great read. And he’s also author of the Wayward Pines trilogy. Joins us from LA. And you can read an excerpt of Dark Matter at sciencefriday.com/darkmatter. Thank you, Blake.

BLAKE CROUCH: Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Good luck with the book.

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