One of the most imaginative uses of time travel as a story platform was Don Bellasario’s Quantum Leap, which starred Scott Bakula as quantum physicist (among other things) Dr. Sam Beckett and Dean Stockwell as Rear Admiral Al Calavicci:
“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished…
“He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.”
Sam was changing history.
Or was he creating alternate histories?
Alternate histories that led to whole new universes.
Multiverses within the meta-universe.
The multiverse (a term coined by American philosopher and psychologist William James in 1895—I wonder what he was smoking?) is a hypothesis that states that there are infinite numbers of universes existing parallel to our own, but at different “levels” within the meta-universe. The meta-universe is the hypothetical set of infinite—or maybe finite—possible universes (including our own) that together comprises everything that exists, i.e., you, me, the iMac computer I’m typing this on, the New York City skyline outside my window, President Obama, Vladimir Putin, Syria, the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, space, time, matter, and energy, and the physical laws and mathematical constants that define them. (In other words, 1 + 1 = 2 no matter where you are in the meta-universe.)
Confused? See if this helps. Think of the meta-universe as a sort of giant department store. The store is stocked with merchandise, but each floor is a separate department, and a little different; they are contained within the same number of square feet, but the first floor sells cosmetics and leather goods and men’s wear, the second is dedicated to children, the third to women, and so on. But each floor, while having its own standards and imperatives, must obey the rules set by the larger store within which it exists.
So, if Sam Beckett was creating alternate histories as he “quantum leaped” through time, did he eradicate himself from any or all histories? In the last episode, Sam rights what he believes is his greatest wrong—not telling Beth (Al’s first wife and true love, whom he met in a previous jump) that Al isn’t dead, that he is a POW in Vietnam:
Sam: I’m going to tell you a story. A story with a happy ending, but only if you believe me.
Beth: And if I don’t?
Sam: You will. I swear you will. Instead of ‘Once upon a time,’ let’s start with the happy ending. Al’s alive and coming home.
The screen goes black. A caption tells us that Al and Beth will be celebrating their 49th anniversary this year.
And another caption tells us, “Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home.”
But what does that mean?
The Grandfather Paradox: Some fans believe that by changing the course of Beth and Al’s life, Sam wiped himself out of existence because Al Calavicci and Sam never met, therefore Al never became a key element in the development of the Quantum Leap project and so it never got off the ground. But if Sam never existed, then how could he leap to Beth and tell her to wait, for Al was coming home?
The Novikov Self-Consistency Principle: Other fans say that, so what if Al is happily married to Beth? Sam still developed his quantum leap theory, and Al still became his liaison with the government and Sam is still out there, fighting “to put right what once went wrong.” History rights itself. History is consistent.
The Multiverse Theory: Quantum mechanics—Sam is a quantum physicist—describes existence as probabilities, not definite outcomes. And the mathematics of quantum theory suggests that all the possible outcomes of a situation do actually occur. Robert Frost described it this way in The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
By taking the “one less traveled by,” the narrator has led a life with a certain outcome. However, in quantum mechanics, the narrator also took the other road, the one “more” traveled by, and so a “bubble” or “daughter” universe was created, one in which the events and outcome of the narrators life were just as true, but just as different.
American theoretical physicist and string theorist Brian Green, now a professor at Columbia University, put it this way in his 2011 book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.
“And in each universe, there’s a copy of you witnessing one or the other outcome, thinking — incorrectly — that your reality is the only reality.”
So in this universe I have a daughter named Alix who is married to Jeff and they’re about to have a baby any minute, and I work as a nurse in the operating room and write for ComicMix.
In another universe I stayed married to Alix’s father, only in that universe Alixandra is Alexander and I never became a comics writer so I’m not writing this column for ComixMix because I never met Mike Gold who talked me into this thing in the first place.
In another universe, everything happened just like it has happened, only I never got better from my clinical depression and when I’m not in the hospital I’m on Welfare and Medicaid and my daughter doesn’t talk to me.
And in another universe, my father doesn’t have Complex Partial Seizure syndrome and he is going strong at 90 and my mother doesn’t need a walker and doesn’t have emotional, crazy outbursts and she’s as healthy as a horse and my Aunt Augie never had cancer and died and she and my mother talk every day on the phone….
In another universe I don’t have black hair (yeah, I dye it) but let myself go gray and I never married at all but Alixandra is still my daughter and Jeff is still her husband and they live on the East Coast and I’m a film editor who lives in Laurel Canyon with a couple of Oscars and SAG Awards under my belt.
What dreams may be in the multiverse….
To be continued next week!
- Mindy Newell: The Grandfather Paradox Gives Me A Headache (comicmix.com)