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Multiverse: An Idea as Old as Ancient Greece

Multiverse. Credit: Silver Spoon, CC-ZERO / Public Domain

Multiverse is an idea as old as that of the Ancient Greeks themselves—one that in its longevity has recently become the movie fantasy of modern times perhaps because people have always believed that ours was not the only universe. Evidently, is it an idea that goes back some 2,500 years.

Ancient Greek astronomers were among the first to undertake studies of the stars and sky. Their contemplation led to theories, which, though as strange perhaps now as they were then, have never let go of the appeal they hold. Furthermore, though never recorded as an explicit theory, they were implicit in man’s scientific approach to understanding the galaxy inhabited by our world.

The Ancient Greek concept of the multiverse

The preoccupation of Ancient Greece with the universe and the sky may have come from mythology and their love of the gods. Yet, it was also based on real, hard science. The first attempt to map the sky, for example, was discovered as part of the long-lost star catalog of Hipparchus.

The concept of the Multiverse itself can be traced back to two schools of Ancient Greek thought. The first belonged to the Atomists and the second to the Stoics.

The former, led by Leucippus and Democritus, his student, theorized in the 5th century B.C. that all the universe and all matter was formed from fundamental indivisible particles called atoms. Though too small to see, there were many that floated invisibly in a vacuum Democritus called a void. Thus, the everyday objects we see are determined by the number and make-up of atoms that unite through collision.

To the latter, however, there was nothing random in mankind’s composition or that of the universe. Rather, humanity’s cosmos was comprised of a single, indomitable, and immortal soul. Based on this point of view, the change that the universe goes through was nothing more than a renewal of the eternal. It was about rebirth following degeneration.

Multiverse, a light sculpture by Leo Villareal featuring forty-one thousand computer-programmed LED nodes, located between the National Gallery of Art’s East and West Buildings on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Credit: Leo Villareal, CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Multiverse and modern science

So how does the concept of multiverse then come into play in today’s science and the modern world? Like invisible atoms, the naked eye cannot see other universes. Likewise, Leucippus and Democritus believed that their atomic theory required an innumerate amount of worlds. The word ‘world’ itself was synonymous with the term ‘universe,’ and the Greeks, it must be remembered, had already made and would continue to make many amazing astronomical discoveries.

Nevertheless, ancient astronomers like Aristotle and Copernicus as well as later ones such Ernst Mac and Kepler could not stomach the idea of more than a single universe.  For years, therefore, the multiverse became a mute subject—that is, until the 1980s when a new theory called inflationary cosmology revived the question of the multiverse.

This new theory posited the possibility of a string of extremely rapid expansions or inflations in other parts of space following the initial big bang that hurled our universe into being. If this were accurate, then wouldn’t our bubble or world only be one out of an infinite many?

Sheldon Cooper and the string theory

String theory, or the theory of everything, also supports the concept. In essence, by reimagining what reality is composed of, it attempts to make dreams a reality. Many of you, for example, may remember Sheldon Cooper from the show The Big Bang Theory.  If  so, then you likely know that string theory was one of the subjects he studied.

As the character once infamously said “if I’m being honest, I never forgot about string theory. I mean, it’s remarkable. It’s the closest we’ve come to a theory of everything, something even Einstein couldn’t figure out.”

It is not, however, about the type of parallel dimensions we see in science fiction films. Rather, string theorists argue that there are so-called extra dimensions curled up within the three traditional dimensions of space. Does it sound similar to the theory propounded by the atomists Leucippus and Democritus? That may be because, in some ways, it is.

Hollywood certainly seems to believe in the possibility—hence the number of movies recently produced that have given new light, as well as taken new twists, on the multiverse theory.

The movie fantasy of modern times

Marvel Comics

In the world of cinema, the idea of a multiverse has been growing in popularity for quite some time, though, in 2022, the theme became somewhat dominant. In July of this year, for example, the Marvel Comic Studios announced their plan for a five-year multiverse saga consisting of at least sixteen films and several shows.

The Oscar-winning animated film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, also had its own multiverse. Evidently, Phil Lord, one of the producers and writers of the movie, initially thought that the concept of the multiverse was “too egg-headed an idea,” but, eventually, it was accepted by studio executives.

“I think we’re living multiple lives in parallel dimensions sort of all the time,” the Hollywood filmmaker said.

“We’re living an online life—or lives,” he said. “Then we’re living a work life that’s on a screen…Then there’s home life, and then one with your friends. Trying to resolve those things is going to be something we’re all thinking about all the time.”

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Credit: IMDb

Furthermore, he added that  “in terms of storytelling, it’s about imagining possible outcomes of our lives. The whole reason we have narrative brains is in order to imagine future outcomes of our actions.”

Perhaps, that is the reason why the writers of Marvel Comics have always been intrigued by the multiverse theory. As their fans already know, most occur in the fictional Marvel universe, which itself is part of a multiverse. In the comics, the multiverse consists of several alternate universes sharing the same hierarchy. Earth-616 is, however, the main universe.

Time travel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives birth to some. Yet, the writers at Marvel Comics also like to reform and reshape them. It first appeared in The Comes with The Avengers in 1971. Later, it was written into films such as X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Other films, such as the 1998 romcom Sliding Doors and  Everything Everywhere at Once have also paid tribute to the Ancient Greek’s theory of alternate universes. The hugely successful 2022 movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was another such film.

Michael Waldron was the writer, and, in his words, the theory has now become so popular for one simple reason: “What about the present moment doesn’t make you yearn for an alternate reality? Exploring the multiverse allows characters to physically realize and confront those fantasies…for better or for worse.”

Today, several Hollywood studios are creating films based on the Ancient Greek theory of the multiverse precisely because it offers infinite possibilities in filmmaking.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Marvel Comics
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Marvel Comics. Credit: Marvel Studios / Public Domain

There are downsides, however, according to Christopher Miller, another producer of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. First, he said, “to play in the playground of infinity is not as satisfying as following a story that has a beginning, middle, and end.” Secondly, the same concept that intrigues and excites the brain can also break it.

A perfect example of this is the phenomena that occurred after the release of the James Cameron film Avatar. Fans reported feelings of severe depression and even suicidal thoughts called “Avatar Blues” afterward. But why was this? This was likely because many, it seemed, could not accept the loss of the beauty of the alternate universe created in Pandora’s alien world. There was even a forum to help the film’s viewers cope.

The Ancient Greek Stoics might have dealt with this best, however, in terms of the existential quandaries posed by the idea of a multiverse. Namely, what is lost is not permanent. Rather, it is a cycle of endless renewal and rebirth—a least in their view of the multiverse, that is.


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