Quantum Physics and the DCU

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF

Sorry there’ve not been many comics-related posts recently, but with the exception of the last issue of Batman, which I’m waiting to review until the end of the RIP storyline, there’s not actually been a comic worth writing about since All-Star Superman ended. There’ve been plenty of decent comics, in a sort of “this is quite fun, I suppose” way, but nothing that I’ve had anything to say about. I miss 52 and Seven Soldiers

Of course if/when the Final Crisis related things get back on schedule, I’ll have a lot to say…

So I thought I’d talk about the different interpretations of quantum physics, the extent to which each of them appears to apply in the DCU, and why that leaves Hypertime as the only *actually consistent* interpretation of DCU physics.

Incidentally, when I talk about the DCU here and in other posts, I’m not talking about what’s officially ‘canonical’ as much as I’m talking about what comics I personally bother remembering. In ‘my’ DCU, no Batman story told between Alan Grant leaving and Grant Morrison coming on happened, 52 happened but Infinite Crisis didn’t, Morrison’s Doom Patrol happened but Byrne’s didn’t, and so on…

There are three major interpretations of quantum physics, which I shall now grotesquely oversimplify. All these interpretations come from a single fact, which is that the results of some experiments change depending on the results people look for. Richard Feynman once said that all quantum physics can essentially be explained by saying “Remember the double-slit experiment? It’s like that”, so I’ll talk in terms of that experiment (or, more precisely, a variant called the quantum eraser experiment ).

To oversimplify this a lot (the details are all wrong but the ideas are right – look it up if you want precision) – if you shine a light through a piece of card with two very thin slits in it, onto a screen, you get an interference pattern which can only be caused by light acting like a wave. However, if you put equipment in the slits to detect individual particles, then you get a *different pattern* which can only be explained if light is made up of particles, not waves. If you leave the equipment there, but turned off, it acts like waves again. Weirdest of all, though, if you turn the equipment on, *but don’t record the results*, or delete the results before you can look at them, it still acts like waves. In other words, behaviour of the light *in the past* is dependent on the information you know *now*.

This has been interpreted in a number of ways, but there are three interpretations that have received most publicity . The ‘orthodox’ interpretation is called the Copenhagen interpretation, and essentially says that everything exists in a fuzzy state until something observes it, which makes the universe ‘choose’ what has happened. The reason that, say, the Moon is there, according to this interpretation, is because people keep looking at it (or looking at effects it causes, like the tides). If everyone ignored the moon long enough, by this interpretation, it would go away.
More accurately, it says it makes no sense to talk about anything unless we can actually measure it. The advantages of this interpretation are that it’s parsimonious – it doesn’t require any new entities being created – and that it just takes the equations and experimental results absolutely literally. The disadvantages are that it means we can never talk about an objectively existing universe – that it denies even the existence of such a thing – and some argue that it gives an undeserved primacy to consciousness, making the universe depend on the existence of minds (though some, such as Heisenberg, would argue with this). Its detractors have characterised it as nothing more than solipsism, and it is most popular among those who think of themselves as pragmatists, who care more about the results than about what the results mean.

The best-known interpretation among the general public is the many-worlds interpretation of Everett, Wheeler and Graham, which posits that any time anything could happen in two different ways, the universe itself splits into two, with each universe being identical except for the position of one photon (or whatever). The advantages of this interpretation are that it fits all the known facts, that it does not get rid of an objectively-existing universe, that it’s easily comprehensible, and that it doesn’t make the fact of observation especially important. The disadvantage – and it is a substantial disadvantage – is that it means that in the time it took me to write this sentence, a trillion to the power of a trillion new universes were created, all absolutely indistinguishable from each other except that somewhere three galaxies away a photon hit a helium nucleus which in this universe it missed. To say the least, this seems to go against Occam’s razor. This interpretation is most popular among science-fiction fans and those who want the universe to be a more exciting and interesting place.

The third main interpretation is the hidden variable hypothesis, specifically the version advanced by David Bohm. This states that all the quantum results that look like they’re probabilistic are in fact deterministic, but controlled by some factor we don’t yet know. For various reasons that factor would have to be something ‘nonlocal’, which means in effect it would be outside of normal space-time, and it would quite possibly be impossible to measure. The advantage of this hypothesis is that it preserves a single, objectively-existing universe which isn’t dependent on our measurement, and that it suggests there’s an underlying order to the universe (the implicit assumption of most people). The main disadvantage is that it involves invoking something outside the normal universe which we can’t measure yet. It also has the disadvantage, as I’ve linked to a couple of times recently, that John Conway and another mathematician whose name I can’t remember have recently proved that the only way this can be true is if we give up the concept of free will altogether.
This interpretation is most favoured by both ultra-fundamentalist materialists who are very convinced that a totally deterministic, objectively existing measurable universe must exist, and by religious/mystical people who see the implicit order or hidden variable as being a manifestation of the will of God (although the God being talked about is not usually the god of the Abrahamic religions but some more Eastern concept like the Tao, or the Deist Nature’s God). In fact this description is rather like the description in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters of the universe as seen by God.

All of these interpretations (plus others such as the transactional and relational interpretations, which are very close to one or more of the above) seem equally valid in our world (I just typoed that as equally valis…) and make the same predictions for every experiment we’ve thought of. So which of these hypotheses appears to be correct within the DCU?

Firstly, we appear to be able to dismiss the Copenhagen interpretation out of hand – there’s never been any mention of it in any DCU story I’ve read. However, there is an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing going on in the DCU, where if a character stops appearing in comics, after a while they just stop existing (like all the recent Supergirls). But that’s stretching a metaphor. We’ve never seen any evidence of the DCU behaving in a Copenhagenist manner.

[EDIT – RAB in the comments (and read the comment in question, it’s a good’un) has pointed out that Limbo from Animal Man could be interpreted in a Copenhagenist way. He’s also linked to this post, which is a rather good reaction to the reintroduction of the multiverse in 52 and ties in with a lot of this stuff).

So we now turn to the many-worlds interpretation. This *has* been brought up before, in things like Peter Milligan’s rather wonderful ‘Schrodinger’s Pizza’ storyline in Animal Man (which really needs reprinting at some point). But while the DCU does currently have multiple universes, these seem to be strictly limited, and the differences between them are macroscopic rather than microscopic in nature. And also, apart from the Hypertime stories (which I’m removing from consideration here because that would be to presuppose the conclusion) most stories involving alternate realities, such as the recent Booster Gold stories or Rock Of Ages have involved an ‘incorrect’ timeline being created which is then fixed. So there is more evidence of this than there is of the Copenhagen interpretation, but it still seems fundamentally wrong in the DCU, where timelines can be altered.

Finally, there’s the Hidden Variable hypothesis. This is the one used by Grant Morrison in Animal Man, and Matt Sturges has recently used it (very much in passing) in Blue Beetle. It also fits the facts in that there *is* something outside the DC Universe affecting it – namely the various writers, artists and editors who work on the stories (unless you consider the infant universe of Qwewq to be part of the DCU of course). It seems the best-fitting of the various interpretations in many ways, and is also the one (of those three) that would allow the intelligent universe that Grant Morrison seems to be pushing for (with the hidden variable here being the DCU’s own sentience). However, as I’ve explained before, in the context of the DCU this would ultimately mean that Darkseid wins, and we all know that Darkseid doesn’t win.

So that leaves a combination of elements from the different interpretations – especially the last two – as the only way forward. It is my contention that Hypertime fits the bill, and is thus the only way to actually make sense of the various different, conflicting stories that have taken place in the DCU. More of this later, including how this ties into information theory…

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8 Responses to Quantum Physics and the DCU

  1. rev'D says:

    When in doubt, go digging. Fun, potentially:

    Fear Agent by Remander, Upena & Moore (4 vols. & counting)

    Finder by Carla Speed McNeil (8 vols. & counting)

    The Winter Men by Lewis & Leon (5 issues & 1 special)

    Stickleback by Edginton & D’Israeli (1 vol.; brilliant fun)

    Umbrella Academy by Way & Ba (1 vol. w/ an intro by Morrison)

  2. RAB says:

    Wonderful post!

    One possible example of the Copenhagen interpretation in DC continuity is Morrison’s idea of Limbo from Animal Man and Superman Beyond. If you think about it, those characters are in a state of quantum indeterminacy: neither alive nor dead until a writer once again allows us to look at them and thereby measure their state. And there’s that book in Limbo containing within it the text of all possible books: its pages might say anything until you open it up and look at one.

    The depiction of parallel Earths in DC has never been compatible with the Everett-Wheeler-Graham interpretation. The idea of having any finite and quantifiable number of universes — whether 52 or however many more — can’t be made to work with the theory. As soon as I started to think about parallel universes and divergent histories, it drove me nuts thinking about DC characters saying there was only one universe with the Justice League, only one with the Justice Society, only one with the Crime Syndicate, et cetera…oh, and we can keep going back and visiting that same one, rather than having to choose from an ever-increasing stack of divergent Earth-2s and such. Limiting it to a mere 52 is simply rubbing our noses in the stupidity of it.

    But of course, DC universes don’t ever diverge, do they? They’ve all existed in the same fixed number since the start of the multiverse. Which leads into the next thing that always bugs me, the notion of there being one “correct timeline” which can be altered by time travellers into a state of “wrongness” that needs to be “corrected.” Booster Gold is doing the Quantum Leap thing and Kurt Busiek is also using this fallacy as the basis of Trinity to my lasting disgust. A lot of really important verified science is based on the principle that there is no universal privileged frame of reference! Having a “right timeline” for your universe violates that concept.

    I wrote a thingie for my blog last year explaining why I get so passionate about parallel Earths even if they don’t necessarily have science on their side.

  3. Why on *earth* didn’t I think of Limbo as an example of the Copenhagen interpretation? Especially since it ties in with so much of what I’m wanting to talk about…

    rev’D – thanks for the suggestions. Some of those I’ve read, and the rest are now on the list, but it’s quite rare I buy my comics in gn/trade format – I tend to be far more wary of spending ten or fifteen quid on something than I am of spending a tenth of that amount on a floppy – which is also why my purchases skew more to the superheroic than my actual tastes do…

  4. Tilt Araiza says:

    Isn’t there a dash of Copenhagen in the nature of sales affecting characters? Readers are a variable hidden from the characters, but one that the writers are aware of (I have no idea where I’m going with this), but for example – not enough people are looking at Blue Beetle’s adventures. His title may be cancelled, making it more likely that he will end up in Limbo. Or put it this way. If sufficient quantities of people stopped looking, the entire print DCU could (in extreme circumstances) stop altogether. If, by some bizarre quirk of fate there was never another DC comic published, there’d be no more universe as such. There’d be stories either told by movie makers or even around the meagre fires of the post-superdepression world, but they’d be totally at the mercy of the variables of the teller. The reader/observer has a certain power over the current storyteller variable to maintain an illusion of integrity in the DCU. I guess Gardner Fox was acting as both storyteller and observer when he explained why The Flash was and wasn’t the Limbo-bound Jay Garrick.

    As I think about this, it turns circular.

    1) not enough people looked at Jay Garrick, he eventually vanished and it was slightly Copenhagen.
    2) But not totally Copenhagen, he could have potentially run as a backup strip had someone in the company felt passionately enough about him and anyway, he’d have stood a better chance if he hadn’t been from the All-American wing of the company (the storyteller variable that kept Aquaman going after the superhero boom had ended).

    I can see an endless spiral of things that vanish through not being observed and things that keep going/get revived in spite of a lack of observers or to find new observers. Flash Of Two Worlds is partially dependent on Jay Garrick having gone through lack of observance and is very dependent on Fox reviving a character from Limbo through a storytelling impulse and that’s the story that sparked the DCU, isn’t it? Sort of?

    You know that idea of a universe being something folded between disparate dimensions? In some way, the DCU is folded between the dimension of “this is the thing I want you to observe” and “this is the thing we want to observe”.

    We stop looking at the moon, the moon vanishes but a hidden variable then places the moon in a different part of the sky and it’s a different colour.

  5. pillock says:

    I’m going to argue with all of this. But not yet.

    Except to say! Andrew, let’s not talk about many-worlds…let’s talk about Aleph numbers. That’s the real key.

    How does the DC universe differ from our own?

    We don’t know how big it is: we only see the titles that are for sale.

    By the way, this? “We stop looking at the moon, the moon vanishes but a hidden variable then places the moon in a different part of the sky and it’s a different colour”…lovely stuff.

    But don’t forget: Aleph numbers.

  6. Juan Arteaga says:

    Another example of the Copenhagen theory at work can be found in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, it’s multiple spin-offs and the odd DCU comics that deal with deities.

    According to Sandman, gods exist in the DCU because people believe gods exist. I think magic works for the same reason too. There are some examples of this outside the Vertigo neighborhood of the DCU; like a few issues of Joe Kelly’s JLA where Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth breaks and suddenly the universe becomes more subjective than usual.

  7. Marc says:

    “It is my contention that Hypertime fits the bill, and is thus the only way to actually make sense of the various different, conflicting stories that have taken place in the DCU.”

    Maybe so, but… is it worth doing?

    That way lies madness, or at least Roy Thomas.

  8. pillock says:

    “Equally valis” is great…also agree with you on Schrodinger’s Pizza. But I still have a lot of problems with Hypertime.

    Urrgh. Having trouble getting this down to a manageable size…in fact I don’t think I can do it. The thing is, the conceit of having an in-story physics that accounts for writerly whim (that plays with continuity, natch) isn’t the same thing as specifying a physical mechanism by which that writerly whim is independently replicated inside the story’s universe by the blind action of its own internal forces. That’s a very ambitious notional physics, because it suggests a very powerful explanatory scheme — far too powerful, I would suggest, for a toy universe. I mean why does it work this way? What governs — what, inside the story, could be presumed to govern — the splitting or criss-crossing of the Hypertemporal worldlines?

    It’s the pseudo-quantum-mechanical stuff that makes it difficult. It’s just a bad fit: you could do the same thing without getting your hair mussed by invoking the Dreaming in Gaiman’s Sandman. That, at least, offers an obvious pre-existing structure that answers questions…over here are the skerries of dream, over here is the House Of Secrets…

    Wow, it really is surprisingly difficult to condense this argument, score one for Grant…I don’t imagine anyone will find what I’m saying here to be very convincing, because I’m not sure I’ve been very coherent.

    I may try again later.

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