“In an infinite universe, anything is possible.”
A nice maxim for science fiction, perhaps. But it probably doesn’t sound like productive science.
A growing number of high profile scientists and science popularizers have come out in favor of the idea that there may exist a “multiverse” of multiple universes, and that this might explain some of the unusual properties of our universe. If there are multiple universes, each with different physical laws, then we must exist in one of the universes with laws capable of supporting us, no matter how rare or unlikely such a universe is. This sort of argument is called anthropic reasoning.
(If you’re picky about definitions and don’t like the idea of more than one universe, think instead of a large universe with many different regions, each one separated from the others. There are some decent physics-based reasons to suppose we live in such a universe.)
Why is anyone in favor of this idea? It all goes back to the Higgs.
The Higgs field interacts with other particles, giving them mass. What most people don’t mention is that the effect, in some sense, goes both ways. Because the Higgs interacts with other particles, the mass of the Higgs is also altered. This alteration is large, much larger than the observed mass of the Higgs. (In fact, in a sense it’s infinite!)
In order for the Higgs to have the mass we observe, then, something has to cancel out these large corrections. That cancellation can either be a coincidence, or there can be a reason for it.
The trouble is, we’re running out of good reasons. One of the best was supersymmetry, the idea that each particle has a partner with tightly related properties. But if supersymmetry was going to save the day, we probably would have detected some of those partners at the Large Hadron Collider by now. More generally, it can be argued that almost all possible “good reasons” require some new particle to be found at the LHC.
If there are no good reasons, then we’re stuck with a coincidence. (This is often referred to as the Naturalness Problem in particle physics.) And it’s this uncomfortable coincidence that has driven prominent physicists to the arms of the multiverse.
There’s a substantial backlash, though. Many people view the multiverse as a cop-out. Some believe it to be even more toxic than that: if there’s a near-infinite number of possible universes then in principle any unusual feature of our universe could be explained by anthropic reasoning, which sounds like it could lead to the end of physics as we know it.
You can disdain the multiverse as a cop-out, but, as I’ll argue here, you shouldn’t fear it. Those who think the multiverse will destroy physics are fundamentally misunderstanding the way physics research works.
The key thing to keep in mind is that almost nobody out there prefers the multiverse. When a prominent physicist supports the multiverse, that doesn’t mean they’re putting aside productive work on other solutions to the problem. In general, it means they don’t have other solutions to the problem. Supporting the multiverse isn’t going to stop them from having ideas they wouldn’t have had to begin with.
And indeed, many of these people are quite supportive of alternatives to the multiverse. I’ve seen Nima Arkani-Hamed talk about the multiverse, and he generally lists a number of other approaches (some quite esoteric!) that he has worked (and failed to make progress) on, and encourages the audience to look into them.
Physics isn’t a zero-sum game, nor is it ruled by a few prominent people. If a young person has a good idea about how to explain something without the multiverse, they’re going to have all the support and recognition that such an idea deserves.
What the multiverse adds is another track, another potentially worthwhile line of research. Surprising as it may seem, the multiverse doesn’t automatically answer every question. It might not even answer the question of the mass of the Higgs! All that the existence of a multiverse tells us is that we should exist somewhere where intelligent life could exist…but if intelligent life is more likely to exist in a universe very different from ours, then we’re back to square one. There’s a lot of research involved in figuring out just what the multiverse implies, research by people who wouldn’t have been working on this sort of problem if the idea of the multiverse hadn’t been proposed.
That’s the key take-away message here. The multiverse may be wrong, but just considering it isn’t going to destroy physics. Rather, it’s opened up new avenues of research, widening the community of those trying to solve the Naturalness Problem. It may well be a cop-out for individuals, but science as a whole doesn’t have cop-outs: there’s always room for someone with a good idea to sweep away the cobwebs and move things forward.