Science + Pop Culture, writing

Are Fictional Multiverses Lame?

Fictional Multiverses Are Frankly Kind of Lame

At least, that’s what this Nautilus article concluded. It opens with an image from the famous Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” – Spock with a(n evil) goatee1 – then walks you through other classic “parallel universe” examples, including Narnia, an episode of The Twilight Zone, and even Marvel’s latest cinematic production Doctor Strange.

It then concludes that writers don’t go far enough in their creativity: “[I]n a way they have been curiously unimaginative. Their multiverses aren’t nearly as extreme as the ones physicists conceive of.” Of the latter sentence, this is true, however the author forgoes mentioning that even the smallest alteration of the fundamental laws of reality (or something as major as, as she suggests, apples falling up) would make that universe uninhabitable for us.2

Take the gravitational constant G, which gives us how attractive mass is and how spacetime curves in the presence of mass/energy. In this universe, is approximately equal to 6.674×10−11 m3⋅kg−1⋅s−2. That 10−11 makes it a very small number – we could also write it like 0.00000000006674. And the 4 isn’t the actual end – the value is rounded. Because G‘s so tiny (making gravity by far the weakest of the fundamental forces), it’s really hard to measure accurately. The constant has been measured a dozen times in the past several decades, and scientists get different values every time.

Changing this tiny value (and not touching any of the other parameters, like the strength of electromagnetism or dark energy) at the moment a universe comes into existence could threaten the existence of atoms and galaxies and everything in between. If is too small, the first stars couldn’t form because the hydrogen and helium atoms wouldn’t be attracted enough to pull themselves together until there’s enough mass to initiate fusion. Without those first stars we wouldn’t have any elements heavier than Lithium, so no rocky planets, either.

If G is too big, stars would form more easily, but they would also burn up more quickly.3 The universe would age faster. If G was even larger – especially compared to dark energy and the initial expansion of the universe – everything would have collapsed back in on itself long before we were around to think about the lameness of fictional multiverses.

This is not to say that there aren’t universes out there with different starting parameters than ours that can support life. There certainly could be.4 They just wouldn’t be able to support ours. Any human visitors to one of those realms (or a creature visiting ours) wouldn’t live to tell the tale, so a story accurately depicting travel through that multiverse would ultimately be far lamer (or at least more uneventful) than one with the Terran Empire.


The article also states that it’s impossible to visit a parallel universe, other laws of physics or not: “Fiction keeps running afoul of the annoying rule of physics that forbids us from moving between our world and another.” As someone who has a blog based around pointing out when pop culture misrepresents science, I might be saying this a bit hypocritically, but…who cares?

We don’t visit parallel universes in fiction to show an audience that it can be done (or how) – we do it to tell interesting stories about interesting characters. Or to explore alternate scenarios for pre-existing characters, so we can appreciate them more. Star Trek‘s Mirror Universe shows us a realm where humans embraced the worst in themselves: hate and fear of the other, might makes right, and so forth. This in contrast to the future Gene Roddenberry saw us having and presented to us on a weekly basis – a future of hope.

Parallel universes are a plot device as much as faster-than-light travel is. They operate a bit differently between tv and film, of course, because in television we’re (usually) already familiar with the characters going to this new realm and we know they’ll be back next week.5 It’s more of a side adventure that – at worst – lets the characters play around a bit in a new sandbox.

As for film (and one-off tv shows like Twilight Zone), writers could always try and write a story about alternate universes with no physics-violating traveling involved (The author cites Sliding Doors as an example). But if you stop to think about it, that’s every movie. No movie is 100% identical to reality – even those ‘based on a true story’ – so in a way, each story exists in a universe parallel to ours. Maybe we should rethink all fiction as a multiverse, with each franchise its own universe (or more than one, if traveling to others is involved). And can we call every fictional story humanity can possibly come up with lame? I don’t think so.

Seeing science portrayed on tv or in film – whether accurate or not – invites the curious to investigate how it really works. The Nautilus article ends with a good quote from Sean Carroll (currently a professor at my alma mater): “I actually really like the idea that people get inspired by seeing these things in movies. It’s not supposed to be scientifically accurate. The spirit of science is there.”

I understand what the article is trying to say – that physics is weirder than you think it is and that’s really cool (and I do love articles of that ilk) – but I think it could have done so without denigrating an imaginative narrative device in its title.



1. While beards are supposedly the signifier of an evil counterpart (or that’s how they’ve come to be known in pop culture), Mirror!Spock – the least ‘evil’ of the featured men in that universe – is the only one sporting facial hair. This is probably a good thing, as Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty should have been immediately identified as impostors upon beaming up to the Enterprise.
2. She does quote physicist Lawrence Krauss, who says, “the particles and forces that govern our life are constrained to exist in our three-dimensional universe”, but I don’t read this as addressing the fact that if we were to enter into a universe where, say, atoms followed different rules, our atoms would switch over to those rules and we’d be dead very, very, quickly. I could be wrong, though. 
3. A star is in a constant battle between its mass trying to implode everything and the energy from fusion exploding everything, so the more gravity trying to crush the star under its own ‘weight’, the larger the nuclear furnace, the more energy produced per unit time.
4. It’s like how people call out astronomers for looking for water/conditions on planets that support life as we know it, and point out life could exist in a form we’ve never before encountered. Yes, we know there could be a silicon-based Horta out there, but we also know a small subset of parameters that definitely allow life to exist, so we work with what we got. In the meantime, I’m sure there are people sitting around thinking about truly alien creatures and how physics could accommodate their existence and we can look for those, later. 
5. Unless it’s Sliders, a show I never watched. 

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