As far as I am concerned, Max Tegmark is one of the best science communicators among scientists. I met him at Princeton when I was working on a story about the universe for National Geographic Magazine. At that point, he had not yet written Our Mathematical Universe, which was published in 2014.
When I visited Princeton, I met with several scientists to learn about the universe, but I remember my conversation with Tegmark most distinctly because it left my brain spinning.
The goal of my visit was to figure out ways to visualize the universe for an information graphic. I did not find the typical information graphics about the universe very helpful and intended to come up with a new one.
I quickly learned that this was not an easy task for many reasons. One of the biggest problems is that it is difficult to show something that you cannot get outside of!
Take the illustration above, for instance. On the left side is the Big Bang and on the right side is the expanded universe today. The whole thing forms a sort of cup and we are somehow viewing it from outside. That’s impossible. This information should probably have been presented as a timeline instead of trying to give the universe a specific shape.
After talking to Tegmark, the challenges of depicting the universe got worse. It was in my conversation with him that I first heard about multiverses. I remember sitting outside with him on a bench. He said it was completely possible that another universe, or more, existed side-by-side with ours and that in those other universes, my space or the space next to me could be occupied by other persons. The difference between the universe we live in and others might only be a matter of numbers. He dives deep into explaining why some researchers think multiverses may be real in Our Mathematical Universe.
The reasons why multiverses may exist have everything to do with mathematics, and that is Tegmark’s specialty. Mathematics describes our universe beautifully, but there are some areas where the calculations suggest some very strange things. Einstein’s equations are a good example. His equations were simple and beautiful, but implied very strange things, like the concept of spacetime and black holes. The implications of the equations were so weird, other researchers at first thought there must be some mistake. But experiments proved, again and again, that Einstein’s math was right and the weird things were real.
Today that same weirdness emerges from the math of quantum physics. That’s where the multiverse math comes from. Tegmark starts his book off with a memory of riding fast on his bike into an intersection at the same moment as a fast-moving truck. A split second determined whether he was riding quickly enough to avoid the truck. Max survived, barely. But that was in our universe. The multiverse perspective suggests that in some other universe Max did not make it.
Tegmark’s other area of expertise was mapping the cosmic microwave background. This is what we see when we look out as far as we can in every direction from Earth. The microwaves are the energy of the early universe shortly after the Big Bang. We cannot see past it.
This provided me with the idea I chose to design for National Geographic‘s article on the universe. I wanted readers to ponder the fact that no matter in what direction you look from Earth you are looking toward the Big Bang—the thing that lays just beyond the cosmic microwave background. Since the Big Bang started as a single point in space, however, this means that everywhere you look in space, you are looking toward a single point. If your response to that last sentence was, Huh?, you understand the problem.
I’ve always been fascinated with the universe, and frustrated that there is so much we do not understand. I like to explore ideas about the universe visually, not only in information graphics and illustration but also in fine art. Examples of these explorations can be seen in my Invisible Domain series, which I did while working with researchers at the Johns Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute.
I am coming more and more to agree with Tegmark that the universe is mathematical. It is a rather profound way of thinking about things and all too easy to misunderstand. Yet the more I learn about the universe by reading books like Tegmark’s, the more I see that you cannot separate anything from math. We/it/everything—even consciousness—is math. We are a mathiverse.
I look forward to exploring that concept in future art projects.