In the 1999 sci-fi classic “The Matrix,” Neo learns that the world he has always thought of as reality is actually just code in a computer. The idea is similar to the “brain in the vat” thought experiment: how do we know that we are not just disembodied brains receiving electrical stimulation, which we falsely interpret as the real world?
A series of strange and inexplicable events recently happened to my significant other and me. As a result, I’m left wondering if reality as we think we know it is actually just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
What we perceive as the solidity of objects is actually an illusion: atoms are mostly empty space. “Solidity” is really just an effect of atoms trying to stay away from each other. This really makes me wonder just how real is anything if nothing is solid.
And if this list at Reddit is any indication, many people have bizarre “glitch in the matrix” stories. The creepiest from that list has got to be this one:
My dad used to get up around 3AM every morning for work. Starting at a very early age I would wake up on my own and wander downstairs to see him before he left. One morning when I was about 4 years old, I made it to the bottom of the stairs and noticed that the front door was ajar. I opened it up and saw my father in his favorite workshirt making his way down the driveway to his truck in his typical work outfit (plaid shirt and dickies). I swung the door open wide and yelled for him to come back for a hug before he left.
He slowly turned around and just STARED at me and started walking back towards the house. He was looking so strangely at me that it started to scare me and I began crying and asking what was wrong. Just as he had almost reached me a pair of arms encircled me from behind in a bear hug. I turned my head to see my understandably freaked out father staring at his doppelganger (in the SAME outfit). The double took one look at my dad and ran down the driveway, meanwhile my dad yanked me in the house and locked the door.
Weirdest morning EVER. Never did quite figure that one out. I would not trust my 4 year old memory of the event if it wasn’t also witnessed by my father. He won’t really talk about it these days but my mom has since told me that he called out of work and she spent the day reassuring him he wasn’t a nutcase.
Anecdotal evidence aside, some physicists are beginning to seriously ponder the question of a “Matrix reality.” Such a thing seems impossible to study, but Silas Bean – a nuclear physicist at the University of Washington – has a test for the simulation hypothesis:
“Most physicists assume that space is smooth and extends out infinitely. But physicists modeling the early universe cannot easily re-create a perfectly smooth background to house their atoms, stars and galaxies. Instead, they build up their simulated space from a lattice, or grid, just as television images are made up from multiple pixels.”
Bean and his team calculate that the motion of particles within their simulation [and their energy] is inversely related to the distance between the points of the lattice: the smaller the grid size the higher energy the particles will have.
So if our universe is just a simulation, we’ll observe a “maximum energy amount” for the fastest particles.
And what do you know: astronomers have noticed that cosmic rays always arrive at Earth with a specific maximum energy of about 10^20 electronvolts. That’s about 0.0000000000000000048 watts. [That’s not a lot of energy at all!]
“The simulation’s lattice has another observable effect that astronomers could pick up. If space is continuous, then there is no underlying grid that guides the direction of cosmic rays — they should come in from every direction equally. If we live in a simulation based on a lattice, however, the team has calculated that we wouldn’t see this even distribution. If physicists do see an uneven distribution, it would be a tough result to explain if the cosmos were real.”
Our own computer simulations are becoming incredibly sophisticated. Harvard’s Odyssey supercomputer can simulate an incredible 14 billion years in just a few months. With computing power becoming increasingly godlike as the years go by, how much more stunning will simulations be in a century? Silas Bean thinks we’ll be creating simulations that include humans in 100 years. Given our own technological advancements, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that a more powerful civilization has already done this.
But how would simulacra in a computer program know – or even recognize – that reality wasn’t real? Wouldn’t “the programmers” structure everything to fool us? Perhaps, but it’s possible that some glitches escape their attention – at least momentarily. For example, physicists in Europe working on the OPERA project were stunned when a neutrino was briefly clocked at going faster than the speed of light – the cosmic speed limit. Could it have been evidence that something was amiss in the programming of our universe? Maybe, but no corroborating evidence was found and it was decided to be an equipment error. Another example of a possible programming error occurred in 1999 when astronomers went on record saying that the “fine structure constant” wasn’t so constant: it is one thousandth of a percent bigger today than it was 10 billion years ago.
Most people are familiar with the bizarre and counter-intuitive world of quantum mechanics: cats can be alive and dead at the same time; objects can be in two places at once; and observers can change the state of objects by merely looking. It is as if the quantum realm exists in a state of undecidedness, like when a video game environment pauses before filling in the rest of the details.
Much speculation exists in the scientific community about what it all means: wave/particle duality and the Many Worlds interpretation are the two most commonly accepted ideas. Wave/particle duality can be explained as the idea that EVERY possibility exists at the same time until something happens to “collapse the wave” [cause reality to solidify into one outcome]. The Many Worlds interpretation instead suggests that all possibilities exist in their own parallel universe; new universes are constantly being created as new possibilities arise. This means an infinite number of parallel universes!
But I wonder if a simpler solution could be possible: maybe the quantum realm is so bizarre because the intelligence behind the simulation doesn’t bother itself to fill in the details until someone looks. This would easily explain such strangeness as the observer effect.
Do you have a “glitch in the matrix” story?