Q: According to the Many Worlds Interpretation, every event creates new universes. Where does the energy and matter for the new universes come from?

Physicist: There is no new energy or matter (or even new universes), it’s just that how it’s distributed depends on who’s asking, and in what “world” they’re doing the asking.  The important thing is: the universe doesn’t split or spawn new universes.

For those not familiar, here’s the crux of the problem.  If you don’t interact with (measure) things they behave like waves and can be in many places and do many things.  But when you do interact with a thing, it suddenly seems to only be in one state.  The double slit experiment is the classic example.  There are a couple of ways to explain this: the Copenhagen interpretation, psychic powers, Spaghetti Monsters, the Many World Interpretation, and a few others that are a little far-fetched.

If you go online (or read some kind of book or something) you generally find the Many Worlds Interpretation presented as the universe “splitting”.  Something along the lines of “everything that can happen will, just in different universes”.

From howstuffworks.com: “When a physicist measures the object, the universe splits into two distinct universes to accommodate each of the possible outcomes.”

From about.com: “…every time a ‘random’ event takes place, the universe splits between the various options available. Each separate version of the universe contains a different outcome of that event. Instead of one continuous timeline, the universe under the many worlds interpretation looks more like a series of branches splitting off of a tree limb.”

Quick aside: I’m about to talk about why this is wrong, but don’t take that as a criticism.  The “splitting/branching” thing is about the only narrative anyone ever hears, so I’m not knocking the fine and hard-working people of “about” and “howstuffworks” (or the authors of the hundreds of other examples out there).  Much respect.

So, supposedly every time any kind of quantum event happens that could have one of several results (which is essentially every moment for every thing, which is plenty) the entire freaking universe splits into many universes.  But, the universe contains a lot of energy.  Like, even more than the U.S. uses in a year.  So, whence does this energy come?

First off, in a not-really-explaining-anything nutshell: the universe doesn’t branch so much as it meanders and intertwines.  This isn’t an answer to the energy question, but it’s worth mentioning.

If you want a picture to work with, rather than thinking about the universe as an ever-branching tree, think of it as an intertwining (albeit, very complex) rope.

The many (like: many, many) different versions of the universe branch apart, and come together all over the place.  That is; one event can certainly lead to several outcomes, but in the same way, several causes can lead to the same event.  Everything the could happen will happen (given the present) and everything that could have happened did happen (given the present).  You can think of this as un-branching, or branching into the past.  Either way.  The Franson experiment, which demonstrates a single photon emitted at two different times in the past interfering with itself (isn’t that weird?), is one of the most beautiful examples of this “backward branching”.

That doesn’t answer the question, but it does sorta help set the stage for the universe being more complicated than just “splitting”.

The way that energy is conserved depends on the context of the question.  Say you’ve got a particle and at some point, for whatever reason, it finds that it has to take one of two paths.  There are a lot of reasons this could happen, but the particulars aren’t important.  The cases to consider are: 1) you measure it taking one of the two paths and 2) you don’t.

Although the details change, the total amount of energy stays constant from all perspectives. Both from inside the system (left) where all the energy is concentrated on one of the possible paths, as well as when seen from outside (right) in which the particle and its associated energy can be distributed among the different paths.

If you’re “caught up” with the particle in question, maybe by observing it / interacting with it, you find that it only takes one path (More accurately, each of the different versions of you see each of the different versions of the particle taking one path).  You’ll see the particle start out, “choose” between the upper and lower paths (a random choice), and continue on.  From your perspective the total energy never changes.  You may have a sneaking suspicion that there are other quantum worlds, but you never (none of your versions ever) actually see a problem.  To have a problem you’d need to be able to see more than one of the particle’s “worlds”.

But that’s no problem!  Seeing a particle in multiple states (each of which is a different “world” to the particle) is the oldest trick in the quantum book. This, by the way, is one of the great weakness of the language involved.  You’d think that “worlds” and “universes” would have to be completely separate.  But while the different states of the particle each see each other as being in different worlds, for something that sees the super-position of all those states (for example, something that sees the interference fringes in the double slit experiment) they seem to be in the same world.

When a particle (or whatever) is in multiple states its energy and matter is distributed among those various states.  In the two-equally-probable-paths example above, half of particle’s existence takes one path and half takes the other.  Likewise, its energy and matter are divided among the paths.

Although you can’t measure “half a particle” (a particle’s nature is to be indivisible), you can show that particles often need to be in multiple states (so their existence can be spread out), and you can even calculate and measure how much of each particle must be taking various paths.  Again, the double slit experiment is an excellent example.

So, in the two-path example, a particle comes along with some amount of energy.  When it has a choice of two paths it takes both.  The energy of the particle is divided in proportion to the probability of the path taken.  So, for example, 50% chance of each path means equal division of the energy and matter of the particle.  Before the fork all of the energy is on one path, and afterwards, despite the fact that the particle is behaving as though it’s in two places, the same amount of energy is present, just spread out.

It may seem deeply weird to say that, but you could argue that no particle keeps all its matter/energy/existence in one place at a time.  For example, if you look at an electron in an atom you find that it’s smeared out around the nucleus in the form of an “electron cloud”.  Electrons don’t orbit atoms like planets around the Sun, they “wave” around the nucleus like vibrations in a ringing bell.

That, and other terrible similes, will be included in my upcoming book, “some thing are like these other things, but different, y’know?: a book that’s like a collection of similes”.

Each electron in an atom forms a "cloud" around the nucleus. Literally, it is in every possible position (some more than others). The nucleus itself takes the form of proton and neutron clouds, they're just much, much smaller.

For “uncertainty principle” type reasons, electrons (and everything else) always exist in a “cloud” of locations, all at once.  You can say “there is an electron around this atom” and you can say “the energy and matter of the electron is around this atom”, but there’s nothing you can say past that.  The existence of the electron, and everything else about it, is spread out.

Each different version of a thing, and every “parallel world” may see itself as holding all of its energy and matter, but from an outside perspective (where the “many-worldness” becomes important) it’s just part of a greater whole.  Either way, energy is always conserved.  So, while it’s fun to talk about “other quantum realities” and “different universes”, it’s more accurate to say that everything is happening in one universe.  One, stunningly complex, weirdly put together, entirely counter-intuitive universe.

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34 Responses to Q: According to the Many Worlds Interpretation, every event creates new universes. Where does the energy and matter for the new universes come from?

  1. Sergey Melnik says:

    So, im curious. is there an infinite number of universes that exist? or simply an WHOLE LOT?
    also, do universes split at every smallest increment of time? (there IS a smallest increment of time possible, right?) or just when one of those quantum experiment things happen (when an electron or whatever needs to choose what path to take)?

  2. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    The point of the post is that there aren’t universes splitting off, so much as there’s just one that’s terribly complicated. Even the splitting, and whether a split even happens, depends on how related you are to the system in question (the particle, or Cat, or whatever).
    If you’re asking about whether the total numbers of quantum states the universe can be in is finite, then there’s not much to say.
    Some physicists say it’s finite, some some infinity, and some even argue about what kind of infinity!

  3. Steven says:

    Great post, but like string theory I only understand it enough to know that it is awesome, not enough to comprehend exactly what is going on. I get the gist of it though, and that’s what matters.

    By the way, the sitcom Community recently did an episode based on the “many worlds” theory, comparing seven alternate timelines of the main characters. Not a lot of science, but definitely worth a watch:


  4. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    I was thinking about posting that exact link!

  5. Cris says:

    I’ve seen many references in documentaries about the MWI but, as it sometimes happens, the metaphors and examples in these ‘shows’ sometimes makes things even more difficult to understand, so here’s a short question: Does the MWI apply only to quantum particles or also to macroscopic objects? Is it actually true that for MWI proponents there’s ‘literally’ a copy of me that hasn’t read this article? Or one whole world of people that live “today” without electricity? One whole galaxy where non-human descendants of reptiles evolved here on earth are already traveling to the stars? And so on… By the way… Could there be a whole universe that “started” 10 billion years ago instead of 13.7?

  6. Jason says:

    also, do universes split at every smallest increment of time? (there IS a smallest increment of time possible, right?) or just when one of those quantum experiment things happen (when an electron or whatever needs to choose what path to take)?

    The universe “splits” whenever there is a quantum interaction. But it is more accurate to describe it as the way the entanglement of particles spreads.

  7. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    As crazy as it makes us sound: yes. If there’s some way for it to happen, then it does. Space dinosaurs and all.
    It’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t matter. Whenever you want to figure out the probability of something happening, what you’re really doing is figuring out the probability of that thing given the way the world is now. So the probability of seeing space dinosaurs given the world we see is zero.
    Similarly, for Captain Bigteeth of the star ship USS Notextinct, the probability of seeing us (given that the rise of mammals thing never happened) is also zero.
    It’s an open question whether other quantum universes could have started at different times. I don’t think they could, but I can’t back that up.

  8. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    The universe doesn’t split at all, it just supports a very complicated reality.
    While there isn’t necessarily a smallest unit of time (although that is an open debate), time scales that are small enough are useless. Basically, there’s no way to distinguish order in any useful way when the time between two events is less than (around) the Planck time. But it’s not a hard and fast line.
    It is absolutely better to describe “splitting” in terms of entanglement!

  9. Cris says:

    Hey, Physicist! Thanks a lot for answering!
    Since the year I’ve been a physics “enthusiast”, this (MWI) is the one thing I don’t think I’ll EVER come to terms with. Paradoxically, many physicists seem to think it’s the best way to understand/explain many other quantum weird phenomena, if I understood your earlier post correctly. (http://www.askamathematician.com/2010/10/q-copenhagen-or-many-worlds). If ever the MWI is proven right, that would be an existential shock that would make previous such shocks (By Copernicus, Einstein, Hubble, Bohr, Heisenberg et al.) look like nothing in comparison.

    Another short question/suggestion. Speaking of parallel things… did you ever thought of making a Youtube channel? I absolutely LOVE channels such as sixtysymbols, 1veritasium and others, but they rarely answer people’s questions or address problems as deep as those in this blog. Also (sadly) it’s a great way for approaching those people that see a few blocks of text and say “BBBOOOOOOOOOORING” and then run away.

  10. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    Personally, I think the MWI is about as proven as it can get.
    We do have a channel, but there isn’t just a heck of a lot in it.

  11. Darren says:

    Absolutely hilarious phony book title!

    Additionally, I found this post useful but I certainly feel I read a lot more about MWI to come close to understanding it. I do know that Deustch supports it, but he also says that only 10% of professional physicists do. Are you able to clearly explain why this is the case? (if it is indeed the case)
    Thank you!

  12. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    Although (with a lot of pondering) MWI helps people understand quantum physics, it isn’t necessary or even useful when it comes to actually calculating stuff.
    I suspect that most physicists, when pressed, wouldn’t be willing to say that they believe in any particular approach to quantum mech.

  13. David says:

    Since it’s seems you are not going to answer to my official question, I might aswell try to get an answer here in the comment section.

    How can you claim that MWI is “Proved” when you can’t even make sense of the Born Rule (which is the entire reason to postulate unobservable nonscientific parallel universes to begin with?)

  14. JC says:

    Wibbily-wobbily, timey-wimey stuff…. got it, thanks.

  15. Bob says:

    Many Worlds is just as ludicrous as metaphysics gets.

    What seems to escape its proponents is we just so happen to live in the only coherent world?
    You see, we dont live in a world where if I shoot a gun randomly in the sky it could get deflected by a Babe Ruth home run, skim off a birds beak, go through a crashing plane’s engine and get shot out the back to hit the President.
    Yet these types of absurdities would be just old hat if everything that could happen happened and they would happen repeatedly in every single world.
    We dont get to be in the world that makes sense.
    We would see things like heads or tails coming up a thousand times in a row, Hitler naked on a pogo stick, and all probability would go out the window. How about the world where every single person got 2+2 wrong? There could be no truth is the many worlds philosophy–and thats what it is–a philosophy postulated by people who have no business straying out of the scientific world into the world of logic. Im sorry, but its just embarrassing, amateurish, philosophy.

    The very point that Quantum theory can make predictions with excellent accuracy shows the many worlds view to be just another lame philosophy proposed by scientists to escape the fact that our will is our own, our choices are our own and we will be thoroughly responsible for them in the end.

  16. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    While MWI does mean “everything that can happen does”, it doesn’t mean everywhere always. For example, say you give everyone in the world a different number from 1 to 7,000,000,000. You can definitely say “somebody out there has the number 10”, but you can’t say “everyone out there has the number 10”.
    More than that, probabilities (and thus predictive powers) are maintained. You can definitely say “if I meet someone on the street, there’s a 10% chance their number will end with a 7”, but you can’t say “if I meet someone on the street, there’s a 100% chance that their number will be 1,023,675,899”.
    MWI isn’t much more than the conclusions physicists have drawn from experiments over the years, and then applied generally. Basically, there doesn’t seem to be any limit, either theoretically or experimentally, to how big an object can be while still exhibiting super-positions (“many-ness”).

  17. Martijn says:

    Nice article! As pointed out at the beginning it’s very different from other descriptions I’ve read, which absolutely made no sense to me. Do you know of other resources that go deeper into this way of describing the theory? Or even give a more formal account of this?


  18. Bob says:

    Wow. It seems as if quantum mechanics is more complex than I thought.

  19. Andrew says:

    “Many Worlds is just as ludicrous as metaphysics gets.

    What seems to escape its proponents is we just so happen to live in the only coherent world?”

    Who said any such thing? Under MWI theory, all worlds are coherent, and “we” live in all of those worlds.

    There would be separate versions of you in all worlds of the multiverse, but to say “I just happen to live in the only coherent world” is nonsensical. You are just as much a separate person from your multiverse clone as you are a separate person from your next-door neighbor.

    A scientist living in the 1800s, before the age of quantum physics, would naturally believe in a single linear universe (i.e. what the majority of non-scientific, not-very-religious peons believe in today).

    Such a person could just as easily say “There are billions of people in the world, and you want me to believe that my consciousness just happens to be in the only coherent person?”

    What you’re describing is a false dilemma. The idea of “my consciousness magically exists at these arbitrary coordinates” is no more an absurdity for MWI than it is for Copenhagen, non-quantum views, or even religious views about the universe.

  20. Andrew says:

    “You see, we dont live in a world where if I shoot a gun randomly in the sky it could get deflected by a Babe Ruth home run, skim off a birds beak, go through a crashing plane’s engine and get shot out the back to hit the President.
    Yet these types of absurdities would be just old hat if everything that could happen happened and they would happen repeatedly in every single world.”

    You know the axiom that an infinite number of monkeys sitting at typewriters would eventually create the complete works of Shakespeare. You also know that somewhere in the infinite digits of pi is contained the bit-encoded audio of Pachebel’s Canon.

    But you should also understand even if you had an infinite amount of monkey-script at your fingertips and a computer that knew pi to infinite digits and could give you any sequence of them at a moment’s notice…
    … it would also take you an infinite amount of time to find what you’re looking for amongst the crapton of other stuff.

    In other words, while the very ludicrous MWI world that you’re describing may indeed exist, what makes you believe that you have the remotest chance of ever ending up there?

  21. Larry Dale says:

    All of the above depend on the physical nature of everything. If many-worlds, different created dimensions etc depended on matter then yes, duplication on such a vast scale would be tantamount to ‘magic’.
    But there are two points here (many more if…). Assume for one moment that the universe does branch out which ‘universe’ is actaully doing the branching? Our universe might simply be a byproduct of something more infinitely vast.
    But suppose it isn’t the physical (?) that are responsible for duplicate alternate universes. (As I mentioned elswhere) I don’t see Time as a single ‘arrow’ going forward thus producing nothing more than a ‘calendar’ of events. Clocks are fine for telling you when to go to work, go home, eat, sleep (biological) and all the rest but this doesn’t tell us what Time actually IS! Besides, if you were a photon you might even disagree that there was such a thing as Time. What if Time itself is multidimensional (for me I think 4D) and it is Time that is producing the alternate, many-worlds etc. In this way movement ‘foward’ is no more than activating a ‘layer of Time’ and the past remains activated (and possibly accessible) and the choices we make become a real statistic part of Time (alternates). This would then imply that it is Time that supplies reality and not what we see as physical reality.

  22. Crystal says:

    I have a problem with the MW theory and would love to hear someone’s opinion on this. I don’t think that things happen by chance. For example, if I’m making a decision as simple and insignificant as, say, choosing what I’ll have for breakfast, it isn’t as if I will arbitrarily, blindly take something out of the fridge. That decision – Special K cereal or yogurt – will be made based on many factors, such as what I had for breakfast the day before, or how fresh the milk smells. In other words, I choose what I choose for a reason, even if, at that moment, it seems as if there is a 50/50 chance I will choose cereal. In reality, there is a 100% chance I will choose cereal, because yogurt is gross first thing in the morning. At least, this morning. Do you see what I’m saying? I don’t believe things are predetermined, but I’m not sure that things are quite as up to chance as the multi world theory suggests. Elucidate away 🙂

  23. Andrew says:

    At the quantum level, events are determined by probability, not cause and effect. The quantum level is very, very small. Much smaller than a single brain cell. It’s also important to understand that “determined by probability” doesn’t mean “50/50 chance”.

    I think you’re making the mistake of thinking of MWI as being a small number of branches caused by macro human decisions. I think it makes more sense to think of MWI as an infintesimal number of branches caused by micro, subatomic events that eventually propagate themselves to affect real life events. I personally favor the idea that branches are as common as time is granular. It’s known that units if time can be identified as short at 10^-42 seconds in duration or smaller. The MWI theory can be simplified even further by not distinguishing time from branching at all.

  24. You say that universes don’t “split”, but that is exactly what physicists say. Take for example David Deutsch.

    “But the many worlds idea offers an alternative view. Dr Deutsch showed mathematically that the bush-like branching structure created by the universe splitting into parallel versions of itself can explain the probabilistic nature of quantum outcomes. This work was attacked but it has now had rigorous confirmation by David Wallace and Simon Saunders, also at Oxford.”

    This seems to argue the opposite of what your tree image above says. What are your thoughts

  25. Pingback: Clearing Up This Multiple Universe Thing (Maybe) | Whereof One Can Speak

  26. Can't get there from here says:

    So… can we get to this other aspect of the universe from where we are now? That is, is there a universe where I am dating Kate Upton and may I, the denizen of this Universe in which that is not, nor will it ever, be happening travel to that better place? And if so, do you think my Upton-dating self would be happy to see me, or at the very least flexible?

  27. Collin237 says:

    “The idea of “my consciousness magically exists at these arbitrary coordinates””

    That’s a straw man. A fair statement would be “my consciousness is a physical process performed within my head”. In every concept of physics except MWI, different observers are different physical objects in different places. My world can be defined as the world as seen from the reference position of my head.

    But according to MWI, there is no basis at all for distinguishing my world from the infinity of other worlds. Therefore, MWI is absolutely incapable of answering even the simplest question of how or why something happens and not something else.

    This is radical nihilism, in which science itself is impossible.

  28. David Martin says:

    Good on you for saying “I suspect that most physicists, when pressed, wouldn’t be willing to say that they believe in any particular approach to quantum mech.” Another way of putting this is “So far, there is no satisfactory interpretation of QM”.

    But we’re trying for one, the search is on, and we have new clues from experiments.
    So it’s an exciting time – in the last century there were five or six main possible interpretations, now there are more than ten. At one point the article gives the impression that there are just two or three. I suspect that means ‘for those who have to fill the gap with something, and can’t just leave a gap there’.

  29. Derek Potter says:

    The rope picture is reminiscent of Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe. In it, all possible universe histories form a fibrous block. Whether one rope is singled out for existence is therefore moot. The universe may not be a rope of branches backward and forward in time, only constrained by consistency with the present. For all we know, every possible rope exists. In other words the present just needs to be a possible state in the block. That’s a pretty weak criterion 🙂

  30. Derek Potter says:

    Can’t get there from here – your worries are groundless. It is true that you cannot travel between worlds: they are orthogonal states and cannot affect each other. However, on the bright side, in a large number of worlds you are already dating the lovely Kate. Be happy for your more fortunate doppelgangers. Regrettably there are just as many worlds in which she is a two-headed flesh-eating lizard spitting concentrated nitric acid into your eyes. Yet there is still hope. You cannot travel from one world to another but you can certainly tunnel into an unexpected branch – your future selves will include some who have, apparently miraculously, found themselves blissfully lying in Kate’s arms. And just as many who are screaming in agony and insanity. Enjoy the universe.

  31. Alan Christ says:

    I’m thinking that if you have a cosmic event like the big bang you have ceated a starting point and therefor the matter that came out frist must have an end .. or edge of a univese
    It is probable that there has been more than one big bang we just havn’t encounterd the matter for that universe yet ..

    but the whole problem is there is no mathmatical equation for change only the outcome of it

  32. Fazekas Gergely says:

    Thank you, this was useful. A lot of things seem to be branching in the Universe, but the Universe itself is not, though it is much more complex than it seems at first.

  33. Lish Lash says:

    “When a particle is in multiple states its energy and matter is distributed among those various states. In the two-equally-probable-paths example above, half of particle’s existence takes one path and half takes the other. Likewise, its energy and matter are divided among the paths.”

    How does it make sense to conceive of a single particle as having “two halves of an existance” or being comprised of energy and matter that are distributed among multiple paths in spacetime? That sounds more like the behavior of a wave than of a particle, i.e. something other than a singular point that traces a path through spacetime. Under this MW interpretation, it seems particles don’t fully exist, only waves with probability density gradients that propagate across regions of spacetime.

    My issue with MWI is not that it is inconceivable, but that its explanations are fundamentally incoherent. If the price required to preserve locality of action is that all possible quantum states must manifest simultaneously at all times, then I find it more plausible to abandon the illusion of locality and accept the non-local deterministic logic of Bohmian Mechanics.

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