Melon and the multiverse

October 20 2016

Hi Listserve,

I’m writing to you in the early morning. My 2 year old son has spent the last hour rolling around on my head calling for melon until I finally relented and stumbled to the kitchen to fix him a bowl. The sky is lightening and the early morning fog that pours in from the bay is beginning to burn off. I’ve set myself up in the corner of our apartment where I sit cross-legged on my office chair and can peer over the computer to watch the kids with one eye as I write this. Which is to say that I am feeling cozy, and things are as peaceful as they get around here.

My name is Dan Brown, and I’m 37 years old. I live in Emeryville, CA with my wife and two kids and a dog. I’m a scientist and a statistician and I like to think about causal inference, particularly as it applies to occupational epidemiology. Which means that I try to study how to ask questions about how people’s work influences their health. Usually these questions are something like: “How much heart disease would this group of workers have if they were all breathing in a certain amount of chemicals while they were at work?”. I think this is a pretty important question, and there are a bunch of very interesting ways to ask it.

One of the most interesting things about this question is the things that answering it implies. When I say that I’m interested in what would happen if things were different, I’m inquiring about something that no one will ever see. I’m trying to determine the value of a variable that doesn’t exist in our world. We call these variables ‘counterfactuals’, since they tell us what would happen if, counter to the facts, the world was different. Which is some science fiction shit.

So, it always really surprised me that there’s this whole realm of serious academic and statistical research that’s based upon these things that are just totally imaginary. But a little while ago, I learned that some very clever physicists were able to do some experiments with light that proved that these counterfactuals do exist! They couldn’t see counterfactuals themselves (they don’t exist here), but they could see their reflection as they passed along the surface of our reality. Now this implies that the whole multiverse concept is true and where we live is just one of a possible infinite series of all the things that could be.

So the universe(s) are big and complicated and amazing and sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming. Which is why I have the following poem (by Alfred Tennyson) up on my wall. It reminds me that the small things we do and the small truths we learn are meaningful, and reflective of our own small stature in the scheme of things:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower – but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Thanks for reading, and in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln: ‘Be excellent to each other’.

Much love,

Dan Brown
Emeryville, CA
[email protected]

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