Essay by Malini Gupta, as provided by Jack N. Waddell
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett
“Professor Gupta,” Dr. Cowen says, voice raised. Had she been speaking? “I’m afraid you must make a decision.”
My undergraduate quantum physics students might have thought it grimly funny, this doctor observing me and expecting an answer, forcing me into one state or another. But of course this notion stinks of a Copenhagen perspective, and that sours the joke as much as the circumstances.
The ventilator hisses, pops, and then hisses again with higher overtones. Its grating rhythm keeps Javier’s blood oxygenated. His face is barely visible beneath the tubes that run into his mouth and nose.
“I hope–” Dr. Cowen hesitates. Her eyes jump to objects in the room, a sad plastic fern, a prism sticker attached to the window glass, the rainbow the sticker casts onto my husband. She looks anywhere but at me.
“I hope you are not letting your theories unduly influence your decision.” Her words spill from her mouth like sweets spilling from a piñata. “I have read your book, Professor. Despite your impressive longevity, you must recognize that it proves nothing.”
How many Drs. Cowen are saying these words just now, throughout state space? There are better than ten to the eightieth power baryonic particles in the universe, each one right now emitting or absorbing photons, flipping their spins, changing energy states. An unfathomable number of quantum events occurs in each moment, and each splits the quantum wave function of the universe. My undergraduates would say that each split of the world’s wave function splits the world in twain, making a pair of worlds that could never touch again, that evolve independently from that point on. This is wrong, but only in its semantics. It has been happening since time itself started.
Among those worlds in which I existed at all, in how many would I have died at a normal age? Nearly all of them, surely. Nearly all the Drs. Cowen among state space would be meeting with someone else just now, and not a hundred and fifty year old woman and her brain-dead husband.
“No,” I say at last. “I’m aware that, from my perspective, only I am immortal.”
She frowns, and I wonder how many Drs. Cowen would have smiled knowingly just now instead, or how many would have lost their temper.
It is a miracle already that he had lived as long as me, that we shared more than a century together. He would have called it a miracle, anyway. I merely marvel at the improbability.
I look past the prism sticker to the small park through the window. A Japanese maple shudders in the wind, loosing a single leaf into the breeze. I fix my eyes upon another leaf, still fixed to the tree. I trace it back to its stem, up to the twig that supports it, then to the thumb-size branch from which that springs, and so forth until I reach the trunk. If I were to remove all the tree but the path I traced with my eyes, only one twisting wooden sculpture would remain. Such is the illusion of my own self, a single twisted path when I look back upon it, but in reality it is ever-branching. This moment is a new trunk, bearing a multitude of selves into the branches of the future.
Dr. Cowen fidgets, bringing me back to the room. I say, “I do not expect you to trust my account, Doctor. Quantum immortality is an experiment we can each only conduct for ourselves. You will believe me when you find yourself the only person that you observe to live forever.”
I cannot see the future, of course, if one can even define the word, but in moments like this it seems I can feel the wave function of the universe splitting across state space. In many worlds, from her perspective, I have probably died in my chair while uttering those words. From my perspective, since one cannot observe one’s own death, I persist. My worldline can take many, many paths, but only ones in which I remain, whereas Dr. Cowen, and anyone else, can take paths in which I do not.
I looked down at my husband, whose worldline has run parallel to mine for all these years, and would soon surely diverge. There are an infinite number of worlds in which my husband arises healthy despite the stroke, despite the complete lack of central neural activity, and where he will remain with me forever. But that infinity is swallowed unnoticed by an infinitely larger infinity of worlds in which he does not. It is not truly impossible, but its improbability dwarfs comprehension, a minutely thin thread in the state space of the world, thinner than even hope’s fingers can grab. It is more likely that my heart will spontaneously transform to gold.
But as long as the ventilator hisses, hope remains.
Dr. Dhana Gupta is a theoretical physicist at the University of Michigan, where she studies loop quantum gravity. She formally obtained her PhD in physics from Cambridge in 1950, after she had been publishing work in quantum mechanics for thirty years.
Jack N. Waddell is a Southern writer, physicist, and educator. He and his wife live in Arkansas, where he enriches young minds, but only to reactor-grade levels. He is immortal so far.
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning photographer and artist who has won first places with National Geographic, The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United States and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited , having shown work in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and The Environmental Photographer of the Year Exhibition (2011) amongst many other locations.