Surfing the Quantum Waves
We may live in a holographic simulation. Everything that can be conceived of must exist somewhere in the universe. There's this cat, you see, in this box that's both dead and alive, man. Dead and alive.
As much as I love the mind-bending ideas of scientific conjecture, sometimes the use of these ideas rankle my common sense. Especially when ideas like the quirks of quantum theory are accidentally or, even worse, purposefully misinterpreted and the model of the universe science is trying to build is mistaken for the actual thing.
The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory states that on the smallest scales changes happen between discreet stationary states. An electron can be orbiting it's nucleus in the lowest energy level but when it receives enough energy it moves to a higher energy level without travelling between the two. That is a quantum leap. The electron is in one state or another and nowhere else. It's counter-intuitive to our experiences but fortunately it only applies to the world of very, very small objects.
The "state" mentioned above is modeled in physics by a wave function and when you hear "collapsing the wave function" it simply means taking something like the electron and making an observation (e.g., what energy level does it occupy?). Before the measurement the state is "indeterminate" and the electron could be in either. After the observation the uncertainty of the state collapses into one definite reality.
Or does it......
The discrete stationary states of quantum theory lead to some paradoxes and these paradoxes lead to some interesting ideas when applied to the world at large (which it shouldn't because quantum mechanics applies only to the very, very small).
Enter the Many Worlds Interpretation of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory. Whereas typically the act of observing is a necessary step to collapsing the function and making the indeterminate a definite reality, physicist Hugh Everett decided that observation is not necessary and in fact the wave never collapses and the definite reality is that both states occur.
This is a neat way to sidestep the paradoxes caused by insisting that things are either in state A or State B but it creates a situation that, while mathematically consistent, is almost impossible to test empirically. In the above example of the electron it ends up occupying both states at once but each state is in a separate universe and the atoms will never interact.
This is where the idea originated that anything that can be imagined has to exist somewhere. When Don woke up this morning he grabbed his razor and shaved. At the exact same time he looked in the mirror and said, "Not today, world. Your shallow conceptions of male beauty ain't gonna rule me and my follicles". The universe split in two and an unshorn Don came into being.
That's still Don, in one world at least. In this world he may still be the baby-faced Midwesterner we know and love but in the land of the unshorn he's now even more epic than before. Let's call this new, even more bad-ass looking individual Ron Diefler.
In every other respect he's the person you would know. He still likes scuba diving....
He enjoys playing his guitar.....
And of course he still likes restraining reptiles.....
Now imagine that any time a decision is made in Don's (or Ron's) day, the universe splits as each possibility is made real. Eggs for breakfast, or a bagel? Tidy Whities or boxer briefs? Wax that 'stache or go natural?
Now imagine that process playing out innumerable times for not only Don and Ron but every living being as well as every situation where two or more outcomes can occur. Each time the universe splits as all possible realities are realized. Pretty cool, huh?
So does that mean that we live in a universe of infinite variety? Perhaps. The math of quantum theory suggests that such a scenario is consistent with the numbers. But before we confuse the map with the landscape let's remember that physics is a model of the real world and when the paradoxes occur and their work-arounds get truly fantastic, the possibility remains that maybe, just maybe the way in which we model the universe is less than a faithful reproduction of the way in which the universe actually is.