By Professor Lord Lord – Chief Science Writer
Milton Keynes is chiefly known for concrete and roundabouts. It is not known for cutting-edge science. It is certainly not known for cutting-edge science in people’s sheds on the outskirts of the town.
And that makes it a great place to do exactly that.
Far from the city centre, in an unassuming shed, one of the most challenging and downright insane experiments in the country is taking place – and that’s just how the experimenters like it.
“Nobody even knows the Parallel Universe Project is here,” grins Vera Careless, who worked on much of the software for the experiment. “It’s fantastic – we have one of the craziest experiments in the world here and because it’s in Milton Keynes, nobody bothers us about it.”
Of course, this raises the question of why this experiment is seen as so bothersome in the first place. “The idea of parallel universes has been around seriously for maybe sixty years or so,” explains Dr Careless. “The problem is that there are multiple different kinds of parallel universe, and everything…well, it’s very speculative. Some studies a few years tried to show parallel universes might exist by considering patterns in the cosmic microwave background radiation, but it turned out they were wrong, and we didn’t really get anywhere by considering things like the gravitational pull of other universes. Gravity is just a really weak force, you know. Anyway, we applied for funding and project space and they just laughed us out of the room. So now we have a shed full of computers. A small group of us banded together and scraped together what we could. It’s not perfect, but it’s doing the job remarkably well.”
The question of whether parallel universes could exist – and if so, how – has polarised physicists, but could it attract the attention of people outside mainstream science? “Oh, yeah,” says Dr Careless. “That’s another reason we try to keep our work inconspicuous – these people aren’t…harmful I guess, most of them, but it can be a bit trying and even a little surreal. The other day a man tried to get into the shed, talking about how if you mix barium and aluminium you get Satan to pop out of a pocket dimension. I had to get a particularly aggressive integral to shoo him out. Also, there’s now a sulphurous smell around and reports of demons descending on Netherfield. Not sure what’s up with that.”
It’s still very early days for the experiment, but results are looking promising. “Initially we had huge problems,” continues Cosmo Knott, another physicist involved in the project. “There are so many competing theories and so many different little things you’re looking out for – and they’re really, really tiny little fluctuations, things that are difficult to pick up on when you’re working with things you’ve had to build or salvage in a leaky old shed. But we really had a breakthrough when reading Terminal Context’s Interview with the Universe, actually. If this universe is capable of communicating in binary, there’s no reason to suggest that other universes would just be silent.”
Because of the huge distances involved, the binary signals are extremely noisy to the point of being near-unintelligible – and our own universe is partly to blame. “I think he’s quite jealous,” says Dr Careless. “When we finally managed to strip most of the noise out of the signals, the messages all said things like ‘those other universes are so trivial’ and we got some measurable fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation, which was really exciting but also quite scary – I mean, we didn’t know if the universe would do anything to us. We reasoned that he thought we were insignificant, I worked on modifications to the signal processing algorithms and now we leave cookies outside the shed door for the universe to eat. Or maybe local miscreants take them. I don’t know.”
Once the binary signals were finally fully processed, however, the results were surprising. “It was amazing!” Dr Knott’s face lights up whenever he talks about the initial results. “We actually have some really wonderful stuff going on here. Not only can we translate the signals, but we can actually pinpoint where they’re coming from,” he says, pointing at a map of the cosmic microwave background radiation. There are odd, asymmetric regions on an otherwise symmetric and flawless map; they are small, to be sure, but they are signs that something is missing from our established cosmological models. Brightly coloured pins are clustered on them, a way to map the sources of the signals. “These are not uniformly distributed and they occur at places where the temperature of the cosmic background radiation fluctuates significantly, which suggests that we might be picking up on something that we’re not accounting for in the accepted models.”
Translation only deepened the mystery and led the Parallel Universe Project team down a bizarre path. “We’ve been getting some really weird messages,” says Dr Careless. “At first we thought it might have been the universe trying to confuse us, but after carefully analysing the speech patterns and vocabulary used, we don’t think it’s likely to be him.”
The messages reveal a myriad of parallel universes: a universe where gravitons, the hypothetical particles which mediate gravity, are sick of being considered the weakest force and have gone on strike; a universe where the gravitons rule with an iron fist and the other carriers of the fundamental forces plot revolution; even a universe where everything is exactly the same, except for Earth being dominated by hyper-intelligent cats. (Your correspondent confesses that the latter is his favourite.) Like our universe, other parallel universes appear to be sentient. They may even have a form of society: there are also messages ordering other universes to do their chores, for example, or chiding universes for not taking care of their child universes.
If the Parallel Universe Project’s success can be replicated elsewhere, it will be a triumph for proponents of multiverse theories – but it will also raise more questions than it answers. “I’ve read their papers and that team is doing some fantastic things, some very solid things considering they’ve had to construct their setup from scratch,” says Mona Pole, a cosmologist doing research at the Barton in the Beans Institute of Astrophysics, near Nuneaton and its deinonychus outbreak. “The problem is that they’re working with some very limited equipment, to be honest, and it might be confounding their results. They also won’t be able to tell whether there’re an infinite number of universes or not, or how they’re arranged, for example.”
Other researchers are more sceptical. “My first instinct is to say this is bosh, this is nonsense,” comments Martin Piffle, an astrophysicist at the University of Warninglid. “Considering what the Parallel Universe Project have had to work with, they’ve produced some remarkably robust results, but that doesn’t change the fact that their setup is reasonably poor and their results fly in the face of established science. I’d like to see them reproduced.”
In fact, the Parallel Universe Project shares Professor Piffle’s concerns. “We only ended up in a shed in Milton Keynes because nobody would fund us,” points out Dr Careless. “So far this project has pretty much been run out of our own pockets and the occasional bake sale. Hopefully now that we’ve published our research, other people will want to try and replicate it. I think we could even make a case for getting some funding.”