"In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."

Author and comedic science philosopher Douglas Adams pretty much nailed the state of cosmology when he wrote his famous Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series.

He had a lot to say about the incomprehensible nature of life, the universe – and everything.

Physicist Sean Carroll in 2008. Photo / Getty Images
Physicist Sean Carroll in 2008. Photo / Getty Images

So does theoretical physicist Sean Carroll.


The quantum mechanics and cosmology professor - who spoke in Auckland on Saturday - confronts audiences with his take on "Our Preposterous Universe".

After all, they shouldn't be there anyway.

As his promo spiel says: "What are the chances a gazillion atoms would bundle together to build 'sentient little sacks of anxiety' capable of asking the big questions – but not answering them?"

Perhaps, as Adams muses, it's better not to answer them at all.

"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

"There is another theory which states that this has already happened."

Then Carroll comes along with a cosmological wrecking ball, his new book Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds And The Emergence Of Spacetime.

Noticed anything different lately?


Carroll's argument tackles the biggest mystery in physics: How is the infinitely weird, infinitesimally small quantum realm compatible with the practical universe as we know it?

After all, these are the building blocks of the atoms that make us.

But Carroll's not interested in building a bridge between the two realities.

He wants to get rid of the gap.

"As far as we currently know," he writes, "quantum mechanics isn't just an approximation to the truth; it is the truth."

The quantum world can be defined as particles of probability. Each element – such as an electron – can be in many possible different positions. Each position has a different probability, an expectation that is only resolved when it is observed.

Carroll conjectures that the electron is actually in all of its possible positions. Just in different, parallel universes. And his theory is a projection of this: Out of the known mechanics of quantum states must emerge multiple, parallel worlds.

"But there's a lot more going on," he says. "Not every world you imagine actually comes true. There are still equations, physical rules, patterns that must be obeyed. Some possible alternate worlds can come true. But not all of them."

What is possible isn't always probable.

"What we have empirically are probabilities. You cannot predict what will happen next. But you can predict the probability."

Carroll says it's time to tackle the big picture problems of infinity and cosmology from a new perspective.

"Physics is stuck trying to understand the fundamentals of nature and the Big Bang," he says. "It's time to take a step back and understand its foundations. It's time to tackle our understanding of the quantum world."

To do that needs a fresh perspective.

"We see our world, and we have an idea of what's going on," he says. "We demand our theories of physics respect that. But that's really not the right way to think. It's the other way around."

When it comes to quantum physics, perspective is a problem. Reality is not necessarily what it seems.

So says Adams: "The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be."

Carroll's spin is a little different.

"It's not about preferences. They are irrelevant. What matters is that you accept what the equations are predicting."

Physicists like proof. So, they tend to test things they can experiment on. But, for a long time, we haven't had any real way to probe the quantum realms.

"Now we're getting better at that," Carroll says. "Technology has improved. Maybe things are going to change."

Douglas Adams, as always, should be left with the final word: "All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it's pretty damn complicated in the first place … Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?"