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See Inside August 2011

Does the Multiverse Really Exist?

Proof of parallel universes radically different from our own may still lie beyond the domain of science



Photograph by Levi Brown

In the past decade an extraordinary claim has captivated cosmologists: that the expanding universe we see around us is not the only one; that billions of other universes are out there, too. There is not one universe—there is a multiverse. In Scientific American articles and books such as Brian Greene’s latest, The Hidden Reality, leading scientists have spoken of a super-Copernican revolution. In this view, not only is our planet one among many, but even our entire universe is insignificant on the cosmic scale of things. It is just one of countless universes, each doing its own thing.

The word “multiverse” has different meanings. Astronomers are able to see out to a distance of about 42 billion light-years, our cosmic visual horizon. We have no reason to suspect the universe stops there. Beyond it could be many—even infinitely many—domains much like the one we see. Each has a different initial distribution of matter, but the same laws of physics operate in all. Nearly all cosmologists today (including me) accept this type of multiverse, which Max Tegmark calls “level 1.” Yet some go further. They suggest completely different kinds of universes, with different physics, different histories, maybe different numbers of spatial dimensions. Most will be sterile, although some will be teeming with life. A chief proponent of this “level 2” multiverse is Alexander Vilenkin, who paints a dramatic picture of an infinite set of universes with an infinite number of galaxies, an infinite number of planets and an infinite number of people with your name who are reading this article.

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