A Physics of the Heart: On Grief, M-Theory, and Skippy Dies

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Two friends of mine died in December of 2010, within a few days of each other. The first was my closest friend from Bombay, who was on a film shoot, in a small town outside of Benares. Early one morning, he drove a jeep across a narrow, rickety bridge, for a “routine sunrise shot” in the film.  He’d been given a driver, who should have been driving, but for reasons unknown, the driver sat in the passenger’s seat that morning.  The story in the newspaper said that as the sun rose and my friend sped down a narrow bridge for a routine shot, he saw two local women walking toward him.  He took a sharp turn, to save them. The camera crew filmed, then stopped filming, as my friend’s jeep fell off the side of the bridge.

The second friend was a younger brother of a close friend from college.  He used a form of assisted suicide in Oregon, called the Gladd method.  He was sent a bag in the mail, and instructions, and placed that bag over his head and connected it to a tank of helium.

I didn’t leave my apartment for a month that winter. My friends’ deaths were unconnected, but in my small world, it felt as if there was a pattern.

Around that same time, an uncle of mine traveled to a small town in Southern India for work, and disappeared.  A family member went down one weekend to try to find him.  Though locals nodded in recognition when shown my uncle’s photograph, no one could say where he was.  A psychic told another family member that my uncle had died. With no other answers, and with no proof, we assumed that that psychic was right, that my uncle was dead, that that story of a loved one going missing was now our story.

Some branches of physics suggest that we live today in a multiverse.  Within the multiverse, our universe is one of many.  Different variations of string theory have different ways of explaining and interpreting how these universes interact.  One variation of string theory holds that all possible outcomes of an event actually happen, across different universes.  In this universe, my friends are dead, but in a parallel universe, they decided to sleep in, or to let the driver drive, or to return the suicide package when it came in the mail.

While in high school, a young Palo Alto resident named Michio Kaku set up an atom smasher in his garage, which “frequently blew out all the fuses” in his house.  As a teenager, he was trying to create “a beam of anti-matter” — to complete Einstein’s work and develop a Theory of Everything that might explain the nature of our universe.  Now Kaku’s a leading theoretical physicist, a CUNY professor, and a serious studier of time travel, parallel universes, and M-theory. “Probably there are other parallel universes in your living room,” Kaku says. Our universe is only one in “a sea of such universes,” a “bubble floating in an ocean of other bubbles.”

Ruprecht Van Doren, a donut loving, slightly overweight 14-year old genius stumbles upon the multiverse early on in Paul Murray’s novel, Skippy Dies.  Up until this point, Ruprecht has been trying unsuccessfully to email outer space, introducing himself as a “keen sportsman” to potential people in other universes.  He’s been following the teachings of “the celebrated string theorist and cosmologist,” Hideo Tamashi, a professor of time travel and parallel universes who bears a striking resemblance to the real life Michio Kaku.  M-theory, Ruprecht finds out from Tamashi, adds an extra, 11th dimension to traditional, 10-dimensional string theories. It is this added dimension that might make it finally possible to travel through time and space.

“This eleventh dimension,” Ruprecht explains to Skippy and to their friends, is “closer to your body than your own clothes…there could be another universe just one millimeter away, only we can’t see it because it’s in another dimension.” From far away, my arm might look like a one-dimensional line to you.  But up close, to an ant on my arm, it is two-dimensional. There are dimensions that we can’t perceive, but that exist, and there are parallel universes in these dimensions.

At this point, Ruprecht is set to follow in professor Tamashi’s footsteps.  Head of his class, he hopes to make it out to Stanford one day to work side by side with Tamashi to uncover the secrets of our universe. When, as the book’s title suggests, Skippy dies, Ruprecht, despairing and grief-stricken, stops going to class. His science becomes a physics of the heart. Tamashi’s M-theory, Ruprecht realizes, is a way to bring back Skippy. If he can just find the key to unlocking parallel universes, he can reach Skippy in that 11th dimension closer to us than our own clothes.  He can turn back time, reach into the void and pull Skippy out, and say things that he didn’t get to say while Skippy was still here. If he can figure out the right wavelength, he can get the strings that connect our universe to every other universe in other dimensions to vibrate and sing out a final message to his best friend.

And perhaps this explains why, when Skippy Dies found its way into my hands, in that period after my friends died, it was the only book I could read — why I stayed up for three nights, turning and returning its 600-odd pages. Somehow Ruprecht’s story was doing what it was saying: making me feel as if I had been pulled out of my own bubble, and into multiple possible others.

There’s been no shortage of recent, high-concept stories created based on speculation about what happens when our universe is not the only universe, and when planets collide, as physics suggests they do, all the time. In the film Another Earth, director Mike Cahill starts out with the premise of a multiverse: there is another earth, and there is another you, on that earth. On this earth, you got drunk and got into a car accident and now are in jail, no longer on track to go to MIT, and become a scientist.  But on Earth 2, you didn’t go to a party that night, maybe.  Richard Berendzen, the astrophysicist who narrates the film, has written several books on physics and one book on how he was sexually abused as a child.  No matter whose world we find ourselves in, it seems, physics holds meaning for those who have lost something.

In Murray’s book, characters, instead of planets, orbit each other, and collide to catastrophic effect. Murray’s prose mirrors this planetary collision effect, as do the events of the book.  His descriptions of young love, and of grief, are so raw and vivid that they make for an alternate, enveloping universe, one created by the friction of words brushing up against each other in new ways.  His book generates warmth and then heat as characters meet, and as rapid-fire dialogue brings them into each other’s orbits.

At the end of the book’s first section, for example, at a school party, a friend shoves Skippy, who literally goes careening into his love interest.  Professor Hideo Tamashi, Ruprecht’s hero, steps in to explain what happens when these two types of planets collide: “what happens is nothing for a little bit and then everything starts moving in slow motion.”  Sparks fly.  Hearts open up.  Strings vibrate.  Asterisks scatter across the page. Worlds, characters, collide continually, across space and time.  Kaku says that by the time you’ve read this sentence, another big bang will have happened.

Skippy is so alive, and his friends so bereft after he dies, and his enemies so menacing, that the book rises up like a bubble universe; the characters lift right off the page. Murray telescopes in on Skippy so closely that even when he’s dead, as he is for much of the book, we feel that he’s still hovering right next to us, closer to us than our own clothes.  And that if anyone can bring him back, it’s Ruprecht.  And that if we just read closely enough, our own loved ones might come back too.  In physics, it’s often said that the most beautiful explanation is the right explanation.

Ten or 15 years ago, one of the last times I’d seen my uncle, he promised a much younger me that one day he’d tell me the real story of my family, and of himself. I’m not sure what he meant by that, and I didn’t ask.

After he went missing, my dad said that we couldn’t go look for my uncle, his little brother, that there was nothing to do at this point.  For my dad, I would have spent my entire life searching, but my uncle, childless, didn’t have anyone looking for him in that way.  I felt horribly guilty and wept about that, but in some cold, hard way, what my dad said was the truth. Still, in times of death, what we want is for someone to do everything, to do anything.

In Skippy Dies Paul Murray is doing anything and everything he can think of to reach a universe where the facts aren’t so cold and hard. As Ruprecht, about to die of grief, builds a foil-covered pod in his school’s basement, trying to transport a toy robot into space, Lori, Skippy’s love interest, tells Ruprecht that maybe there is another world, but it is in this world.  Maybe the best we can do, while we’re still here, is to tell each other stories, about where we’ve been, and in that way, tether ourselves to each other, and to this Earth.  To act like strings, and tie ourselves together.  Before, one way or another, we too vanish.

And even outside of novels, the different universes do sometimes briefly make contact.

A few days ago, my uncle surfaced.  He called from a hotel in Southern India, offering little explanation, except to say that both of his knees were shattered.  Through sheer will, he had made his way back to the chawl in Bombay where he and my dad grew up.

The chawl used to be four stories tall and full of dark, one-room flats. In the years he was missing, it was turned into a skyscraper.  The new flats are marble, glass-walled rooms that float over the atmospheric dust of Bombay and the Arabian Sea.  I’ll see my uncle in one of those flats, next week, but I still won’t have any idea where he’s been. In some sense he won’t even be the same uncle.

Michio Kaku says that time travel is theoretically possible, but that when you travel back, time forks. You can go back in time and save Skippy, but the Skippy you save is your genetically identical friend in a parallel universe, on a parallel timeline, not your Skippy, who loves swimming and is drowning on earth. You can keep Abraham Lincoln from being assassinated, but that Abraham Lincoln will be another universe’s Abraham Lincoln.  You can’t keep history from happening. Your friend in the jeep is gone.

Image Credit: Thomas Galvez