You’ve Heard It (and not Heard It) a Million Times Before
While surfing the net, I came upon a site called The Universes of Max Tegmark with a long expose of Tegmark’s ideas about multiple universes, including a thought experiment he refers to as quantum suicide, which he apparently cooked up back in 1998, though Wikipedia claims that the same notion was discussed by Hans Moravec in 1987 and Bruno Marchal in 1988. Suppose you set up an experiment in which a gun fires or does not fire depending on whether it turns out that the spin of a given particle points up or down. The odds are 50/50 for this completely indeterminate quantum event. Now suppose that an experimental subject sits in front of the gun and will be killed if the gun fires and will go on living if it does not. According to Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, both outcomes occur, but in non-communicating, parallel worlds. From the point of view of the experimental subject, however, only one outcome is observable so that in principle a scientist who is willing to put their life on the line could verify the many-world’s interpretation by repeating the experiment on herself until the null hypothesis were rejected with any desired level of confidence. The experiment raises the possibility that everyone is immortal from their own point of view, assuming, and it’s a big assumption, that there is always set of some quantum events that would allow the subject to avoid death. This notion apparently occurred to Everett himself. According to his friend Keith Lynch, “Everett firmly believed that his many-worlds theory guaranteed him immortality: His consciousness, he argued, is bound at each branching to follow whatever path does not lead to death.”
Here’s the strange thing. I wrote a short story back in 1985 that features a version of the quantum-suicide idea. I wasn’t trying to do physics without a license—the experiment was just an elaborate plot device—but I wonder where I got the idea from or if I just pulled it out of my ass. The story itself isn’t anything special. Only a few friends and relatives ever read it. I’m offering it here for its curiosity value.
All Men are Mortal
I always treasured my obscurity much as other people cherish their fame. I chose quite deliberately to be a mousey and obsequious nonentity—not out of timidity and certainly not because I think humility to be a virtue, but solely out of a cunning and shameless selfishness. I very early recognized that the world always takes more than it gives its famous names. That’s clear to any halfway intelligent observer in the case of celebrities who are doomed to carry, Atlas-like, the lust, envy, or devotion of the many; but I saw that it was no different for the local real estate man who must atone for his minor triumphs in the Purgatory of the Rotarian luncheon. The visible man inevitably becomes a symbol to his fellows, his identity a pawn in a pointless game whose rules are laid down by the others. I wanted to possess myself, and I made this project the rule of my life.
That’s why I became a professor of English Literature at a small college in Ohio. Of course as a teacher and researcher I did have a social role, but a role far less burdensome than the strenuous occupations of rebel or madman that a less subtle man might have rashly chosen in pursuit of himself. I would have preferred to be utterly invisible or transparent; but, obliged to take on some color, I opted for gray. I thought of myself as a geode, one of those wonderful hollow rocks which looks like a nondescript clod of dirt from outside, but whose dark interior hides a brilliant bloom of colorful crystals.
In this disguise I might have lived and died like a dog in perfect happiness. It was not to be.
I had fallen asleep in my armchair watching an indifferent baseball game on the television when I suddenly startled awake. I thought something had finally happened in the ballgame, but the score was still 0 to 0 in extra innings. “Muscle twitch,” I muttered to myself. I was still rubbing my eyes when I heard a loud but muffled crack coming from the other unit of my duplex. I might have ignored it if I lived in a big city, but Lindley is a very small town indeed, and I couldn’t imagine what could have caused such a noise. Certainly, I didn’t think that my neighbor would do anything rash. Bill Wolfson was a physics professor at my school, an unremarkable middle-aged man with whom I was friendly but hardly close.
I got up, walked around to his door, and called out to him. There was no answer, but the lights were on in the kitchen, so I was sure he must be at home. The door was, as usual, unlocked, and I hurried in, suddenly concerned that something had happened to Bill.
As you will have already gathered, I am a most stolid individual; but I confess that what I saw in the kitchen left me gasping for breath. Bill, or what remained of him, sat or sprawled on cheap dinette chair. His jaws were still clamped tightly on the barrel of an old 10-gauge shotgun. The top of his head was gone and the wall beyond was splattered with blood and brains. An atrocious odor of smoke and burning flesh filled the air. It took a moment for me to be sure that the shock of this grisly scene had not given me a coronary, but as my heartbeat gradually slowed again, I noticed a yet more macabre particular. Bill had set up a video camera on the kitchen counter, and I could still hear the gentle whine of the recorder. For some unaccountable reason, this perfectly normal man had blown his brains out and recorded it all on a Panasonic. I turned of the machine as one might close the eyes of a corpse. Then I called the police.
While I was waiting, I discovered one more thing. Bill had a microcomputer on the kitchenette table. It had been turned off, but I noticed that a long manuscript was hanging from the printer. I guessed it was a suicide note, as indeed it was. For Bill’s sake and, I admit, from my own curiosity, I tore it from the printer and hastily carried it back to my own apartment. I could think of no better place to hide it than my freezer where I nestled it among the petrified leftovers and frozen steaks.
When I returned the cops were banging on the front door. I let them in and showed them to the kitchen. The local police turned out to me far more efficient than I expected. They were also a little irritating to me with their exaggerated deference as if I were some hysterical old woman whose world had been irremediably shattered. In fact, though I actually liked Wolfson well enough, I was more intrigued than horrified by what had transpired, especially since a glance at this last words had given me an inkling that this was anything but the routine suicide of a secretly desperate man. Besides, though I have long affected a slight, scholarly stoop as part of personal disguise, I’m really in very good shape. For once it offended by vanity to be dismissed as an old crock. And dismissed I was, “You can come down to the station anytime tomorrow and make a statement, Professor Hayes—just a formality—no need to worry about it.”
As I imagine the young sergeant expected, I nodded gravely and withdrew to my own side of the duplex, but only because I couldn’t think of a credible reason to hang around the scene of this fascinating incident. As I left, I passed the medical examiner, Dr Stingley, coming in. We looked at each other for an instant—I had played bridge with the man once or twice—and I remember whether this neat little man was as shrewd and competent in his morgue as he was at the card table.
I was extremely anxious to read the dead man’s last message, but both from prudence and a sense of style I decided to wait. I was slightly concerned that I might somehow be discovered with the note if I read it while the police were still rummaging through Bill’s place, but even more than that, it occurred to me that the fragile old scholar character I was playing had to react to the horror he had witnessed with some suitable show of unease. That no one would see me wring my hands and pace through my apartment was immaterial: I was artist enough to know that follow-through is as crucial to pretence as it is to a golf swing. It vexed me inwardly, however, that I couldn’t find out who won the ball game.
It was only much later, when the voices and footsteps from next door had ceased, that I removed the printout from my freezer and with a tint of ice cream. I sat at my own kitchen table eating marble fudge out of the carton and reading the peculiar message Bill had left behind.
Wolfson’s Testament was almost forty pages long—apparently word processing makes even suicides voluble—and was by turns affecting, closely reasoned, and simply crazy. It began with a cri de coeur, “Dear Woody, dear, dear Woody. How I hate you,” and continued in the same Joan Crawford vein for some pages. The tale was a hackneyed one. Bill had fallen in love with Woody; Woody had reciprocated; now Woody had jilted Bill. Bill couldn’t take it, would make Woody sorry, etc. I was a little disappointed, though it was interesting that Bill had evidently had a homosexual affair—I assumed Woody was a he. I was also surprised that so wooden a figure as Bill Wolfson could work himself into such fits of emotion.
As I read along, it gradually dawned on me that Bill never actually used the word suicide. He always referred to blowing his brains out as ‘the experiment.’ At first I dismissed this locution as gallows humor, but it became clear that Bill wasn’t kidding. “I’ve become a mad scientist. In a few hours, I may be dead, but if I’m not, I’ll know the biggest secret of them all because I’m going to perform the grandest and craziest experiment of them all. I’m going to find out if it is possible to turn out the lights.” Somehow the mundane business of self-destruction had gotten conflated in Wolfson’s mind with a weird metaphysical experiment. I interpreted his remarks as a kind of prosy paraphrase of ‘to be or not to be,’ but evidently the undiscovered country he had in mind was not the next world but simply his kitchen. For some reason, Bill seemed to think that he could blow his brains out without dying.
Bill’s ramblings also had a cosmic slant. Sometimes he wrote grandiloquently about his own existence as “the big, obscene mystery,” and likened his mind to a hot, naked light bulb shining alone in a huge, empty garage. “Without me, without the inexplicable witness, what is there in this world but silence, dust, and cobwebs? Why should the light go on burning? Why does it have to hurt?” Apparently Bill thought this his shotgun would supply an explanation or, failing that, at least the sovereign Novocain of oblivion.
Sometimes Bill fairly cackled with crazy glee over what he was doing, but mostly he sounded guilty, and not just because of the pain he planned to inflect on his lover. “I’m a mad scientist because I’m not going to solve this puzzle for anyone but myself. If Frankenstein had proposed to reanimate the dead at the Salk Institute instead of his lonely castle, I bet he would have gotten a grant. In science you can try anything, but you have to let everybody in on it. That’s my secret crime. I’m going to find out about that fucking light bulb, but only for me, Dr. William Wolfson. I’m fed up with being a good little boy.”
Wolfson went on like this for many pages, but just when I thought he would on repeating himself to the end, his tone abruptly changed. I found myself reading a proper treatise on the physics of death. “Ironically, it was you who first pointed out that my interpretation of quantum mechanics may have drastic consequence. Consider an inertial frame of reference such that…” I sighed. In such a dark wood a humanist like me was immediately astray. I who have made a career out of glossing Joyce and Pound could barely stay afloat in a pitchy sea of standing waves, singularities, and nodes, of Hilbert spaces and Hamiltonians. Every time I though I had caught my bearings, the page would break out with equations—it might as well have been written in Chinese. I was all the more frustrated because from time to time I caught sight of a human meaning, but only when a little jagged piece of comprehensible madness broke the black and greasy surface of scientific reason.
To my increasing confusion, Bill went on and on about an animal called Schrödinger’s Cat, and the Anthropoid Principle, and somebody named, improbably enough, Hugh Everett the Third. I was nearly ready to put the paper away and simply go to bed when I arrived at the crux. I had repeatedly read and re-read on particularly dense paragraph without really registering its point when I realized that I had jotted down a note that summarized the whole amazing performance: “Gist of the theory: everybody is literally immortal from their own point of view.” That night between the writing down and the reading over, I felt a distinct sensation of falling.
As any rate, I woke up. While Bill’s reasons were completely opaque to me, his conclusion was quite straightforward. According to him, the stream of time constantly branches into an infinite delta of parallel worlds. Everything physically possible—and apparently that just about anything imaginable—can and in fact does happen in one of the emerging worlds. It follows that whatever peril I undergo, there will always be some escape hatch, some quirk of destiny, which will allow my consciousness to move ahead into one or more futures. We’re all like James Bond or Luke Skywalker. We always dodge the razor-sharp brim of Odd Jobs bowler; we always elude the light saber of the invincible Vader. We can’t even die of old age, for if need be the atoms of our sclerotic arteries will jig instead of jag and get us out of the ICU. The Hell with Aristotle. No man is mortal.
All of this is, of course, sheer theory and lunatic theory at that as Bill seems to have realized. He was too much of a scientist to accept his conclusion a priori. Hence the experiment. “When I shoot myself, I won’t prove a damn thing to anybody but me. In most universes I’ll simply be a problem for the coroner and for you, faithless Woody. From my perspective, though, only successful outcomes can occur; they are the only cases in which I’ll be around to draw a conclusion. I calculate that if shoot myself a couple of times and live, I will verify my own immortality at the .001 confidence level.”
Had you asked me then what I thought of Wolfsan’s theory I would have dismissed it as symptomology. Certainly I was not overwhelmed by all of Bill’s technicalities. O, the pages full of unintelligible mathematics, with their elegant integral signs, Greek letters, and symbols that looked like backward 6’s, were impressive, especially the conclusions marked with a little square for QED. The citations of Bohr, Einstein, and Tipler meant nothing to me. I had no way of knowing whether Bill’s physics was legitimate and in any case doubted if scientific reasoning could touch cogently on a matter of such existential concern. Besides, Bill himself insisted that his experiment violated all the rules of his profession, for it could only yield a personal sort of knowledge. If he fired the shotgun and lived, he might learn something, but in the vast majority of universes the result would simply be a half-headless corpse and a bemused neighbor.
For all my skepticism, I admit I did hope that Bill wasn’t just nuts. What gripped me was the reawakening of an ancient human hope. Who has not secretly consoled himself with the fantasy of his own immortality? Young men are said to disbelieve their own mortality—it is this crazy confidence that sends them whistling off to war. But in the middle of the night when an inexplicable pain wakens an old man’s anxiety, what half-formed thought allows sleep, if not the old dream that it can’t happen to me? I recall that at the end of his life the novelist William Saroyan wrote that he always thought he was exempt from death because was such a good writer, By Wolfson’s theory, one need not fend off one’s doom with superior adjectives, and it isn’t just the heroes who can look forward to the Elysian Fields.
Shaking off such ruminations, I continued to read the note. After all the physics, Bill went on for several paragraphs discussing the ethical import of his ideas. It was as if Wolfson were working out the moral consequences of physical immortality. He seemed to think that right ad wrong were as cut and dried as mathematics and that the new postulate of everlasting life, like the denial of the parallel postulate in geometry, would generate a sort of non-Euclidean morality. He concentrated, not surprisingly, on the new ethics of suicide. “If I am right, murder isn’t so bad as we had thought. In some ways in is impossible. Suicide takes the place of honor, for it harms the living at no cost to the erstwhile victim. In 99.999999% of all universes I will leave you alone to mediate on what you’ve done to me. Trillions of Woods will have to live with that I’ve done while in the comparably few worlds in which I go only living, I will glory in the thought of my revenge and the possession of my great secret.”
Bill’s note wound up with a dark hymn to loneliness. “People have thought that death was the great evil, but the great evil is really loneliness. We will all live on forever in our separate universes, but our immortality will cost us the loss of everyone we ever love. Losing someone is bad enough for beings that can die, but they can at least console themselves with the thought that they too will pass away. In the new world I give you, my faithless lover, there is only eternal loneliness. That was your last gift to me, Woody. Now I’m returning it.” It was this last passage that I had read while it was still hanging on Bill’s printer.
It was almost 5 when I looked up from this peculiar document. I would have to go down to the police station in a few hours, and the prospect made me feel exceedingly weary. Worse was to befall me, for as I undressed it struck me that my attempt to protect Wolfson might be in vain. I might even be in trouble myself. In the excitement of discovering the body and the not, it hadn’t occurred to me that the note might be preserved electronically in the machine. I tried to remember if the power were still on whether that made a difference. Would Dr. Stingley be able to determine if the note had ever been printed out? For once I wished I knew something about the damned computers. With such thoughts gnawing away at me, I struggled to fall asleep and finally succeeded.
I woke up with the happy thought that I was in fact immortal. I jumped out of bed and shouted at no one in particular. Then I chuckled because no one was there to hear me in the silent house.
“Ah well,” I thought, “Life goes on!” I remembered I had errands to run. I picked up my laundry, I went grocery shopping; and to the amusement of several kids, I played a video game in the mall. Everything could have happened the same way a day before my discovery, but somehow my little chores had become intensely pleasurable. Everything was a privilege—a drink of water, the sound of my shoes slapping on the sidewalk in front of Watson’s diner, the blowzy friendliness of the checkout clerk at the supermarket. Everything was magical because of all the inhabitants of the earth, I alone owned these ordinary moments free and clear. I could go to the store a million times. I could let my mind wander for a century if I liked, for my thoughts were as eternal as God’s and I would never again be under any obligation to come to a conclusion.
I amused myself with the theological consequences of my new state. Surely an every lasting being is eo ipso God even if he is also a harmless middle-aged man in polyester pants. Of course, I knew I was neither omnipotent nor omniscient, but it seem to me that I ha a far more important attribute of divinity: complacency. I didn’t need thunderbolts or a cloak of fire. I didn’t need a chorus line of angels behind me. I would be a hidden God whose transcendence never manifested itself in anything more violent than an infinitely knowing smile whose secret I alone possessed.
I looked up at the sun and though that after that great light goes out for good, my stubborn little habits would to on, the true laws of nature. Under a new heaven, I would someday absently pick my teeth and recite poetry to myself.
That sun kept getting brighter and brighter until I realized that it was the sun coming in my bedroom window and that I had been dreaming. It took me a few minutes to sort out what was dream and what was history. A quick trip to the freezer assured me that Bill Wolfson had indeed died in the name of science and love and that I still had a problem with the coroner. By then I certainly didn’t feel immortal. My eyes were red, and my whole body ached.
It was about eleven when I finally went in to see the police. A visibly bored secretary took my statement, and I began to hope that the whole affair would blow over. I had risen to leave when the young woman stopped me. “Excuse me, Professor Hayes. The medical examiner would like to have a word with you before you go.”
Stingley’s office was at the end of one of those linoleum halls what could as easily be part of a hospital, a junior college, or a courthouse. His secretary showed me into a tiny office shoe air bore, or so I imagined, a faint aroma of formaldehyde. Stingley came in almost immediately. He wore his usual neat suit with its aggressively unfashionable how tie, but his seemed uncharacteristically frayed as if he had been up most of the night. His eyes were red and staring.
“I’m glad you came in, Dr. Hayes,” he began formally. “There are a couple of details about Bill Wolfson’s death that need cleaning up.
“I wouldn’t think there would be much for a medical examiner to do in a case like this.”
“You wouldn’t think so. Certainly the immediate cause of death is no medical mystery.”
“Was Bill drinking?” I ventured.
“I don’t me to be impolite, but I think I’ll ask the questions. Tell me what happened.”
“I just gave my statement.”
“Be good enough to repeat it.” Stingley’s request sounded like an order.
In my best academic-obtuse fashion, I told him what happened—everything but the detail about the printout.
“Look, Dr. Hayes, I know this whole affair makes you nervous, but please spare me the professor bit. You can’t be more than 50 and, according to the college, you publish three or four articles a year even though you have tenure. You aren’t the diffuse old gent you pretend to be. Your secret is safe with me, but I want information.”
“Very well,” I said and pulled up my chair. I was impressed by this young fellows acumen.
“I don’t know anybody of that name.”
“You’ve encountered the name recently, though, haven’t you?”
I was framing an answer when Stingley help up his hand, “I know all about the printout. When you tore it off, you left a piece of one page hanging on the printer. It had the last page number on it.”
I opened my mouth but didn’t manage to say anything.
“Please don’t deny it. When I first realized that you had taken the printout, I thought you might be involved somehow; but after I read the note, I guessed you took it to satisfy your own curiosity. Anyhow, you certainly aren’t Woody.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Woody is a woman. I found some letters Wolfson wrote to her on his machine. Unfortunately, they must have been hand delivered. There were no addresses.”
I tried to protest my innocence.
“Please don’t waste my time professor. In the first place you were the only one who had a chance to get the printout. The machine was still warm when I arrive. It had just been turned off. It follows that it had been used just before Wolfson shot himself.”
“Couldn’t someone have removed it between the time I hard the shot and came in.”
“It would have been on the video recording. Besides you’ve obviously been awake most of the night. From what I’ve heard you didn’t know Wolfson all that well. I can’t see you sitting around all night mourning him. I figure you pored over the paper as if it were one of your old books. Frankly, I’m not very interested in hanging you out to dry for stealing printout. It would be a small-potatoes crime in any case. Besides, for someone like you it must be punishment enough to know just how stupidly you’ve acted in all this.”
I did feel stupid, but I resented Stengley’s tone. “I’m sorry I violated the letter of the law, doctor, but I don’t see why you have to be abusive about it. After all, I was just trying to protect a friend.”
“O come now. You took the note because you were fascinated by the whole thing. Evidently you like secrets.”
“I don’t deny my own curiosity in this affair. After all, my profession, like yours, is about finding things out. In any case, I didn’t want the truth about Bill Wolfson.”
“Just you, ey?” Stengley regarded me narrowly. “Maybe you should know the whole story. You were willing to steal evidence out of your scientific love of secretes. Let’s see how well you like this one.”
At this, the coroner unlocked a drawer in his desk and took out a videotape. He led me unprotesting into an inner room and put the cassette in a player. I should have been reluctant to see the tape; in fact, I was full of guilty eagerness.
The tape was surprisingly long. Wolfson had turned on the camera early to capture all of his preparations. He went about his business in complete calm, making sure that the angles were right so that the tape machine would catch everything, even positioning a clock on the shelf beyond the chair. Finally set himself down, very carefully loaded the shot gun and showed it to the lens, leaned back, inserted the muzzle in his mouth, and pulled both triggers in what you’d have to call a matter-of -fact way. There was a loud report and a huge volume of smoke pored from Wolfson’s mouth. Behind his head, the wall was peppered with shot. Bill sat up bolt upright and coughed furiously. Presently the cough turned into an uncontrollable laugh as Bill looked full on at the camera. His eyes were glowing and smoke continued to issue from his powder-stained smile.
For a moment he seemed to lose himself in thought. Then he reached for the cartridge box on the table. Very deliberately, he reloaded the gun, sat back down, put the muzzle in his mouth, and again pulled the triggers. His death was so instantaneous that it wasn’t even frightening: one moment a lanky, forty-year old scientist was settling himself in a chair and the next all that remained was a motionless, partly decapitated corpse.
After a few minutes I rushed in. You could see my eyes get very big, but what actually embarrassed me the most how quickly the expression drained from my face once the sheer impact of the scene had faded. Obviously, because I hadn’t noticed the video machine, I hadn’t bothered to register any emotion at all except perhaps a lingering note of surprise. Because I though myself unseen, I had the blank look of a man blind from birth. Eventually I noticed the camera was on and turned it off.
I stared at the screen for a long time after it had gone black. When I finally looked around, I saw Stingley sitting rigidly in his char with an exasperated look on his smooth face. “I expect I don’t need to tell you to keep quiet about all this. Was it enough of a secret for you?”