The Marshmallow in the Microwave

Sometimes I think about Marcus Aurelius.

Sometimes I wonder if he thinks of me.

That's not as preposterous as it sounds. Did you know that it is possible we are having this identical conversation in an infinite number of other places in the universe? So claims Alexander Vilenkin. Vilenkin's theory is based on the idea of "cosmic inflation", originally proposed by MIT physics professor Alan Guth. In other words, in the beginning of the universe everything got very big very fast, so it is possible that not one big bang but multiple big bangs occurred at once. There may even be many more to come. In fact, we are told that once the process begins it may never end. "Inflation", Vilenkin says, "is like a chain reaction, stopping in one region of space only to start in another". That makes Marcus and me part of an unimaginably vast and never-ending creative energy.* For doubters, it raises the issue of how there can be a God, that far away? For total negativists, it asks why do we assume that a Supreme Being, if there is one, is benevolent?

Each big bang creates a bubble and we live in one of those bubbles, better known as the "universe-as-marshmallow-in-microwave" model. Theoretically, I suppose, our universe could eventually become a gooey puddle. Yet another implication of this theory is that "Bill Murray will unexpectedly fall to earth from an overhead airplane killing you instantly before you finish reading this sentence."

Far-fetched? Perhaps, but one of many fascinating ideas to originate from the Tufts University Institute of Cosmology. If Bill Murray, why not Marcus Aurelius? Well, not dropping out of a plane in your lap, maybe, but thinking about you or me. Since cosmic inflation implies multiple universes occurring simultaneously, all sorts of possibilities spring to mind. Dr. Seuss, for example, might be writing:

I cannot hear you here or there

I cannot hear you anywhere

I'll have to ask green eggs and ham

To find out if you really am

Might have to fry a bumblebee

To see if you in fact still be

And even ask the Oz of Wiz

To find out if you really is.

Or maybe write a wacky verse

Or worse

To say to M. Aurelius

Old chap, are you still one of us?

Now just suppose, since we have entered the land of suppositions, that one cosmic bubble comes perilously close to the edge of another. What might happen if universes collide? Assuming no cosmic 9-1-1 to dial, how would Theodore Geisel react to Marcus Aurelius, to you in the shower and me in the tub? One theory postulates a "bump and retreat" response. (From what I have seen from the automobile drivers on earth, from Palo Alto to Beiijing to Paris, that outcome is highly unlikely. Bumps aplenty. Retreat? Admit defeat? No way.) Another possible outcome is a scenario called "breach and destroy", better known in contemporary terms as "shock and awe". It is the cosmic equivalent of Ego Uber Alles, the testosterone dynamic that means only one can prevail and it certainly won't be you. The result is that you wouldn't have to worry about the Cat in the Hat or Bill Murray landing suddenly in your overhead bin because such a surprise bubble collision would probably annihilate you first.

So maybe the patent on you would explode and expire, its time run out. Are there other generic variations of you? Are there almost-but-not quite you's still out there? Is Brown Eggs and Sushi the same genetic dish? And would the Cat come back in a flamboyantly different Hat?

Then there is the issue of creative defects: it is entirely possible that in the birth process of the universe some cracked eggs appeared, so-called cosmic strings, which populate the cosmos, along with black holes, as very strange offspring. Cosmologists call these "observational signatures" which could eventually enhance our understanding of the entire process. Another fascinating theory postulates that although the universe is infinite, and infinitely expanding, what can occur in these vastnesses is finite, suggesting that history will indeed repeat itself. Geisel the Roman Emperor? Marcus the digital artist?

Where does that leave us, you and Seuss and Marcus and me? With the understanding that we may babble continuously on multiple bandwidths? That what we know of each other may be genetically flawed? That life is both tenuous and gloriously profuse, all at the same time? Assuming that mashups can occur intergalactically, we may not really know who we are, let alone who others were. If there is any sense to be made of all of this, perhaps it goes like this:

Sometimes I think about Marcus Aurelius

Though it is doubtful that he thinks of me

But somewhere between us lie layers of memory

Memes of existence

All of which constitute echoes of me

And of the shadow called destiny.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2011, a hip poet

Note: Alexander Vilenkin is a cosmologist and head of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology. He is also the author of "Many Worlds in One". And thanks to the viewers and friends who shared their thoughts with me.

*For another take on a vast and never-ending creative energy that we all share, be sure to read this insightful article from the New York Times entitled "To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons". It ends with this marvelous quote from Bobby McFerrin. McFerrin mentions a story by Hermann Hesse in which a violinist, granted his wish to be the best musician he can be, vanishes as soon as he starts to play. "He completely disappears into the music", Mr. McFerrin says on the video. "And I think that's actually a big key to a successful creative moment for me, is when I disappear, and maybe the audience disappears into the music and becomes so engaged in the music that you forget that you're even there."