If there was any doubt at the turn of the twentieth century, by the turn of the twenty-first, it was a foregone conclusion: when it comes to revealing the true nature of reality, common experience is deceptive. On reflection, that’s not particularly surprising. As our forebears gathered in forests and hunted on the savannas, an ability to calculate the quantum behavior of electrons or determine the cosmological implications of black holes would have provided little in the way of survival advantage.
But an edge was surely offered by having a larger brain, and as our intellectual faculties grew, so, too, did our capacity to probe our surroundings more deeply. Some of our species built equipment to extend the reach of our senses; others became facile with a systematic method for detecting and expressing pattern—mathematics. With these tools, we began to peer behind everyday appearances. What we’ve found has already required sweeping changes to our picture of the cosmos.
Through physical insight and mathematical rigor, guided and confirmed by experimentation and observation, we’ve established that space, time, matter, and energy engage a behavioral repertoire unlike anything any of us have ever directly witnessed. And now, penetrating analyses of these and related discoveries are leading us to what may be the next upheaval in understanding: the possibility that our universe is not the only universe.
There was a time when “universe” meant “all there is.” Everything. The whole shebang. The notion of more than one universe, more than one everything, would seemingly be a contradiction in terms. Yet a range of theoretical developments has gradually qualified the interpretation of “universe.” The word’s meaning now depends on context. Sometimes “universe” still connotes absolutely everything.
Sometimes it refers only to those parts of everything that someone such as you or I could, in principle, have access to. Sometimes it’s applied to separate realms, ones that are partly or fully, temporarily or permanently, inaccessible to us; in this sense, the word relegates our universe to membership in a large, perhaps infinitely large, collection. With its hegemony diminished, “universe” has given way to other terms that capture the wider canvas on which the totality of reality may be painted. Parallel worlds or parallel universes or multiple universes or alternate universes or the metaverse, megaverse, or multiverse—they’re all synonymous and they’re all among the words used to embrace not just our universe but a spectrum of others that may be out there.
You’ll notice that the terms are somewhat vague. What exactly constitutes a world or a universe? What criteria distinguish realms that are distinct parts of a single universe from those classified as universes of their own? Perhaps someday our understanding of multiple universes will mature sufficiently for us to have precise answers to these questions.
In the end, labeling one realm or another a parallel universe is merely a question of language. What matters, what’s at the heart of the subject, is whether there exist realms that challenge convention by suggesting that what we’ve long thought to be the universe is only one component of a far grander, perhaps far stranger, and mostly hidden, reality.