Reel Science

Apple’s ‘Dark Matter’ Should Change the Way We All Think About The Multiverse

The science behind ‘Dark Matter’ is deep — and a bit disturbing.

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Reel Science

Let’s make this clear up front: The new Apple TV + show Dark Matter, based on the Blake Crouch novel, isn’t actually about dark matter.

“I think you have to talk to Blake [Crouch] about why he chose that title,” physicist Clifford Johnson, who acted as science advisor for both the book and the show, tells Inverse. “On the other hand, Dark Matter in the sense of these dark matters going on in the story – maybe he was just riffing on that.” Still, scientifically speaking it’s confusing. Johnson is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The show follows physics professor Jason Dessen and psychiatrist Amanda Lucas as they jump between alternate worlds, looking for a way home. They travel in a box filled with endless doors, invented by a parallel-universe version of Jason, which can hold a person in what’s called quantum superposition: existing in every possible state at once. Just as Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead until someone opens the box to check on it, Jason and Amanda exist in every possible parallel universe at once until they open a door.

“It's meant to be nowhere at all or everywhere, at least in terms of the possibilities in their lives.”

Each door leads to a different version of reality, but this is no portal fantasy: Dark Matter is built around the ‘many-worlds’ interpretation of quantum physics, which suggests that every time a choice is made or an event is observed, reality grows new branches — one for each possible outcome. Jason must find his way through an infinite multiverse shaped by his own choices if he ever wants to see his wife, Daniela, again.

Navigating the multiverse requires the wayward scientists to carefully control their thoughts and emotions, because — exactly as some real-world quantum physicists have suggested — the observer’s mental state can shape which universe they see when they open a door. It also requires a drug cocktail that shuts down part of the brain, to prevent the pesky “observer effect.” (In quantum physics, the mere act of observing something can cause it to settle from superposition to one single state; imagine if just looking at a spinning coin would cause it to fall to one side or the other.)

This is all to say, the plot of ‘Dark Matter’ contains some wild scientific theories. But how much is fiction and how much would your average theoretical physicist recognize? We talked with Johnson to suss it out — and went deep on quantum mechanics, superposition, and the multiverse.

Jason Dessen comes face to face with the box his alternate self created.

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Inside the box, Jason and Amanda are in a state of superposition; until they open a door, they’re in every possible universe at once. Is that something that can really happen?

Dr. Clifford Johnson: The idea that you want to somehow use superposition as a tool, and be able to turn it on and off at will, is the basis for designing a quantum computer. The idea is that you really do want to have systems under your control — whether it be a collection of atoms, or even a single atom — you want to be able to hold that in a superposition state, isolated from the rest of the world as much as you can. That's essential for being able to do quantum computation. There’s a huge, multimillion-dollar industry trying to make that happen. It’s also very important for fundamental research.

So that part is not speculative; that's a thing people are very interested in, in real science —obviously, not with the goal of trying to send humans to alternative universes.

But the characters seem to be experiencing their own reality, with its own timeline, inside the box. So where are they when they’re in the box?

Blake and I talked about this a lot, because you want to have this physical place that they're in so that it would be part of the narrative. But it's meant to be nowhere at all or everywhere, at least in terms of the possibilities in their lives. I think the answer really is that it's probably up to the reader or the viewer as to how real that space inside the box is. I feel like if you were in such a place, that what you would do, is you would try to make it feel real in order to make sense of it. You would begin to make associations, and your imagination would help you construct at least a working model of these things so that you can navigate it. I feel like this is how their minds have made sense of that sort of in-between superposition state that they're in.

Jason Dessen explores the space between universes.

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What about all of those alternate universes? Does quantum physics say there’s really a multiverse?

Quantum physics is often phrased in terms of probabilities; it tells you this event will happen, with some probability. That's how you compute the outcomes. So when you make an observation and get an outcome, you might go, 'Well, maybe the other outcome happened as well, and that would be another universe.' That is the 'many worlds' interpretation of quantum physics.

There are people who like that interpretation, and they go ahead and do their physics, and that's their interpretation. There are others who don't like that interpretation, and they go ahead and do their physics. Neither interpretation necessarily changes the rules of quantum mechanics. An interpretation is, if you like, sort of the personal narrative that someone uses to make sense of what these rules mean.

“With the discovery of quantum physics, all areas of science that impinge on this have been trying to make sense of it — often by trying to reconcile it with classical physics.”

Now, if someone came up with some aspect of their interpretation that predicted new things about quantum physics, that would be different. It would become a physical theory.

This is actually where new physics and new science begins. It begins with the trying to interpret trying to make sense of things, trying to find the underlying rules. And often it starts out as a framework that doesn't necessarily make any predictions. But then you, you keep digging, and you kind of say, well, if this is true, it will mean that if I did this particular experiment, I would see this thing instead of that other thing. And then someone goes and does the experiment, and science goes on.

But that hasn't happened yet.

Jason Dessen and Amanda Lucas stand in an alternate version of Chicago.

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What do you make of biocentrism, the idea that our consciousness or our perception can shape reality?

I do think it's very interesting. Since we've been encountering these kind of conundra in the physics world, with the discovery of quantum physics, all areas of science that impinge on this have been trying to make sense of it — often by trying to reconcile it with classical physics. I consider many of these different things, including the sort of biocentric view, as as part of that struggle.

I think that there's an overlay of interpretation that we can have on the rules of quantum — and then there's the business of coming up with structures that actually predict new things, and new experiments that we can do that test some of these ideas. And so until one has a body of experimental consequences of any particular interpretation, I tend to be somewhat agnostic.

“You think you're insane. You think there's something wrong with you. You keep examining all the evidence until the simplest explanation ... turns out to be the most likely one.”

What's your take on the compound that lets Jason and Amanda perceive the multiverse? Is that a convenient plot device, or do you think it's possible to somehow get around the observer effect by altering our consciousness? (Could we really change the results of the double-slit experiment by giving the observer the right drugs?)

I think that's entirely for the purposes of the story. People have speculated about the connections between consciousness or mental states of the observer and their role in quantum physics. There are lots of speculative connections between the state of consciousness, and what's called the measurement problem in quantum physics. But that is, in our current state of science, entirely speculative.

The idea in Dark Matter is that a very specific kind of mental state is being either turned off or turned on to achieve what is inside the box; it's not some random psychedelic. I don't think anyone is aware of any kind of physics outcomes that have been affected by being under the influence of anything.

Knowing what you know about quantum physics, if you were in Jason's position, how long would it take you to figure out what was going on? What would tip you off?

Maybe I would have taken a little longer than him, to be honest. After all, he had built a prototype device, which I'm not in the position of having done.

I would probably have gone through the same process: You think you're insane. You think there's something wrong with you. You keep examining all the evidence until the simplest explanation, which happens to be the crazy one, turns out to be the most likely one. I think it ends up being the simplest explanation of all of the facts.

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