Many-Worlds in Fiction: “Divided by Infinity”

Today, has posted the complete story “Divided by Infinity” by Robert Charles Wilson. This remains probably the best science fiction story ever using the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum physics (though it doesn’t call it that explicitly), and also the creepiest:

In the year after Lorraine’s death I contemplated suicide six times. Contemplated it seriously, I mean: six times sat with the fat bottle of Clonazepam within reaching distance, six times failed to reach for it, betrayed by some instinct for life or disgusted by my own weakness.

I can’t say I wish I had succeeded, because in all likelihood I did succeed, on each and every occasion. Six deaths. No, not just six. An infinite number.

Times six.

There are greater and lesser infinities.

But I didn’t know that then.

It’s great stuff, and I’m really happy that now I’ll be able to point to a free copy when people ask me to recommend fiction that does a good job with quantum ideas. If you haven’t read it already, go read it now.

12 Replies to “Many-Worlds in Fiction: “Divided by Infinity””

  1. “There are greater and lesser infinities.”

    So it’s not only incorrect from a Physics perspective*, but from a Mathematics perspective as well.

    Impressive. I’m a fan and thanks for recommending it.

    *- I’m not a big fan of Everett III’s MWI, nor Deutsch’s “new” version. Seth Lloyd isn’t either, and that’s good enough for me.

  2. Interesting. Ever since I was a teenager I have fantasized that whenever I have a close call, such as when a car almost hits me, reality bifurcates and I die in one reality while my consciousness lives on in another.

  3. Steven Colyer @ #3, I thought that greater and lesser infinities were non-controversial things like the infinity of even numbers is smaller than the infinity of whole numbers?

  4. Kate: You’re right that there are different infinities, but you got the example wrong. The even integers are in one-to-one correspondence with the set of all integers, via the map n <–> 2n.

    The set of real numbers, on the other hand, has strictly greater cardinality than the set of integers. (There are some amusing cranks who deny this, incidentally.)

  5. Thank you, Ahcuah, I’d forgotten “All the Myriad Ways” by Larry Niven, one of my favorite short stories as a kid. Yeah, that was good and exactly where Many-Worlds works best … in fiction.

    Oh Infinity, my Infinity!

    And let us never forget, Kate and Ivan, that there are an infinite number of real numbers between zero and one. 😉

    From Wikipedia:

    Infinity (sometimes symbolically represented by ∞) is a concept in many fields, most predominantly mathematics and physics, that refers to a quantity without bound or end. People have developed various ideas throughout history about the nature of infinity. The word comes from the Latin infinitas or “unboundedness.”.

    In mathematics, “infinity” is often treated as if it were a number (i.e., it counts or measures things: “an infinite number of terms”) but it is not the same sort of number as the real numbers. In number systems incorporating infinitesimals, the reciprocal of an infinitesimal is an infinite number, i.e. a number greater than any real number. Georg Cantor formalized many ideas related to infinity and infinite sets during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He also discovered that there are different “kinds” of infinite sets, a concept called cardinality. For example, the set of integers is countably infinite, while the set of real numbers is uncountably infinite.

  6. From the post on Less Wrong: “As of 2008, MWI may or may not be endorsed by a majority of theoretical physicists.”

    Subtle, but fun.

    Otherwise, I find the transhumanist Bayesian groupthink vacuum chamber pretty much insufferable.

    Fantastic story though, thanks!

  7. If you like hard science fiction you should try Greg Egan. In the collection “Oceanic” he has a short story where the protagonist doesn’t just complain about the many worlds version of quantum mechanics, he comes up with a semi-plausible way to get around it using a reverse quantum computer to ensure that any decision made is unique.

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