The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.
In this installment, we’ve brought together theoretical physicist Bryce Cyr and writer/poet/essayist Alison Stine.
Alison Stine is an American poet and author whose first novel Road Out of Winter won the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. Her poetry and nonfiction has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Paris Review, and Tin House. Her essay “On Poverty“, published in the Kenyon Review, is as pertinent now as it was when first published in 2016. She is the author of six books. Climate change is a major theme in the worlds she creates.
Stine’s most recent novel, Trashlands: A Novel is a multi-vocal, lyrical dystopian love story about survival in an unloved place, a testament to the enduring powers of art and resistance, and a tale of one mother’s strength to overcome the unbearable.
Stine reimagines the world after climate change has reshaped the lands we know, forcing global economies to eliminate creating plastic for the survival of the species. As a result, plastic becomes currency, and single mother Coral survives by scavenging for it in the rivers and woods of Trashlands, a dump named for the strip club at its edge. She saves her earnings to try to buy back her son from the recycling factories where he is forced to work after being kidnapped by child labor traffickers 7 years prior. In her stolen free hours, she does something that seems impossible in this place: Coral makes art.
Bryce Cyr specializes in theoretical cosmology at McGill University. He studies a wide range of topics, from analyzing the conditions and impacts of topological defects (such as ‘cosmic strings’) in the early universe, as well as applying mathematical techniques developed for the very early universe to more late-time scenarios such as the formation of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).
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Alison Stine: I’m very interested in the idea of the “many worlds interpretation,” which theorizes that a new world is split off every time we make a decision, or every time there’s an event with another possible outcome. Would this mean there are countless realities, alternate realities splitting off our current world every minute? Would this also mean there are alternative versions of ourselves in these different realities? Why do we experience one reality and not another? Where do all these worlds fit?
Bryce Cyr: The short answer to your question is “yes”, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics does imply that there an indescribably large numbers of worlds in which the events play out differently. The physical laws of quantum mechanics are sufficiently mysterious that on some level, they permit different interpretations, unlike other physical laws.
To contrast, the Copenhagen interpretation is the most well accepted way to study quantum theory. In it, a clear distinction is made between the quantum world and the classical (or macroscopic) one. As an example, imagine you have a laboratory where you have a single electron in a box. The electron is the quantum system and you want to measure which direction it is spinning (there are only two possible orientations, spin-up and spin-down).
Before you make a measurement, each direction that the electron can be spinning has a certain probability of occurring. The act of measuring destroys the quantum nature of the system by forcing the electron to decide if it is in a spin-up or a spin-down state. So, measuring a quantum system causes a phenomena known as “wavefunction collapse” in the Copenhagen interpretation where the electron is a combination of spin-up and spin-down before measurement, but only one of those afterwards.
The “many-worlds” interpretation, on the other hand, argues that the universe is at all times quantum, and so there is no longer this split where the classical world begins. Here, each of these measurements don’t just throw away the result that we don’t see.
For example, if we measure our same electron, and find that it is in a spin-up state, this interpretation would say that there is a separate universe that also exists in which we measure it spinning down. Again, since the macroscopic world is also quantum in this picture, decisions that you make, like “What should I eat for dinner tonight?” would also cause fractures that could birth dozens of other universes. Although there is some comfort in the fact that some version of you is eating everything for dinner tonight!
So yes, there are other versions of you existing in multiverses if you buy into this interpretation. Why we experience one reality over another is a mixture of pure probabilistic chance, and an anthropic principle. Small decisions, such as what pants to wear today don’t effect our survivability, and so it is some senses random which reality we ourselves are experiencing when considering those topics.
However, there are also countless other universes in which, for example, the earth is pushed by some reason to be a bit too far or a bit too close to the sun, therefore not sustaining life. Clearly we cannot exist in those realities since they are inhabitable, which is the backbone of this anthropic principle.
I would view these worlds as existing parallel, but unconnected to ours. There is debate over whether these universes exist in reality (say, in other dimensions that we don’t interact with) or not. However, while many-worlds is interesting to ponder from a philosophical point of view, it has been criticized as unscientific since in its base forms, it is untestable (and therefore not falsifiable). The Copenhagen interpretation remains the main tool for physicists and engineers working on various aspects of quantum mechanics.
Bryce Cyr: When writing science fiction, you are tasked with inventing an alternative reality from scratch. How much research goes into the world-building aspect that doesn’t get showcased in your book? When I read science fiction I often find myself wondering about the sometimes mundane activities that the characters experience which would differ from mine, such as how their education system would work in this new reality, or what kind of food the average restaurant would serve.
Alison Stine: For me, stories revolve around people. Characters make the world. The first character that came for my novel Trashlands was Coral. I dreamed this person. I knew she was an artist, making pieces out of garbage, and that she lived in an old school bus.
I thought, what kind of person would live in a bus? What was the world outside her window like? What if it was full of junk?
Once you know a character, you can know more clearly the kind of reality in which they might live.
I think there is a point where too much research can tip a fictional story into a place where you don’t feel like you have any leeway to create, especially at the start. It’s difficult to invent when you know your limits—and part of the job of a writer is to make the impossible, possible. So, I tend to take world-building as far as I can only with my imagination in a first draft, saving the research for later. Revision is where I try to make it make sense.
I thought the world of Trashlands—where plastic trash is so common, it’s used as currency—was pretty out there. But I’ve been surprised that readers say it feels realistic, like where we might be headed. And I was also surprised, in doing that later research, how much of what I thought was wild is already real. Researchers are melting discarded plastic into bricks, for instance. My editor and I learned so much about plastic—and you’re right, a lot of it didn’t make it in the book, but it was helpful for me to know what plastic would float, how it would feel in my character’s hands.
I think there’s a lot of story potential in those mundane activities too. Work is a big part of my books always—how people can afford to eat, whether it’s foraging plants or scavenging snacks. How do people wake up in the morning? What do they name their children? In Trashlands, they name them after places, animals, and plants predicted to be lost to climate change: Coral, Miami, Summer, Bee.
It’s interesting that you mention education. That’s a big part of Trashlands, where most of the characters have only read a set of waterlogged Encyclopedia Britannica—no other books, though one character was read aloud to from an old phone book. So that influences what language they know, how they might talk. Everything is connected, and the tiniest details can influence a story. For example, the need for eyeglasses became a big part of the plot.
Although I’ve never lived in a junkyard, near a strip club, at the end of the world, I have lived in rural poverty. Those real details make it in. Always, I’m falling back on what I know as a person, what I’ve experienced, at least emotionally, and trying to spin that into something new.