This is the first of a two-part musing.
Online worlds and virtual realities are becoming larger, more complex, more intelligent and more independent by the title. There's also a phenomenal scientific theory that's been in existence for four decades that says we might one day discover reality is on its head, and that we're just living inside the only part of existence that we're able to perceive. Both of these things really bake my noodle, and I've been considering whether virtual worlds and string theory are nervously intertwined.
Part One: String theory, in a nutshell.
String theory is a theory of fundamental physics proposed in the early 1970s, and the hope is that it connects quantum mechanics with Einstein's general theory of relativity. The basic premise is that every physical property in the known universe -- atoms, nuclei, quarks and so on -- is the resulting characteristic of an infinitesimally minuscule vibrating amount of energy called a 'string'.
String theory is radical, but one of the most interesting outcomes it proposes is the possibility that the universe consists of multiple dimensions. Now we know of our four usual dimensions: the physical three and of course time. These are obvious and collectively form the 'space-time' that governs all of physics. However, string theory gets really interesting when you consider the perfectly feasible possibility of there being 11 dimensions in total -- meaning there are seven more that we just can't perceive because of our positioning within our common four.
The late cosmologist Carl Sagan once gave a fascinating analogy that helps us understand what it would be like to see ourselves from another dimension. Imagine you are living in a two-dimensional world: you can move forwards, backwards, left and right. You could never go 'over' someone -- you could only move around them. You wouldn't know that these other beings around you -- who also only perceive the world as two-dimensional -- have a top, or a surface. You'd just see them as a thing you have to skirt around to get past them.
A mystical being appears at your side one day and takes you into this magical new dimension called 'up'. You would see, for the first time, what your fellow beings looked like from above. You could see parts of them that exist perfectly naturally but that are completely implausible and unthinkable of until you see them from another dimension. Quite understandably you'd be terrified. Your entire perception of the world would be completely destroyed and rebuilt as something fantastic before your eyes.
This is the experience you would have if you ever got to look at our four-dimensional world from one of the seven other dimensions string theory suggests. It is the idea that there is a significant, nay colossal, part of the universe that we just can't see.
What has this got to do with the online worlds that millions of us concurrently take part in every day? Read the second part of this musing in the next update of my blog.
To be continued...