The World – The Universe – That Might Have Been… (Part I)

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There’s this thing. It’s called the “multiverse.” Today we think of it as a series of parallel universes that exist simultaneously. This definition stems from a “lunatic” speculative physical interpretation of his mathematical equations made by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s in a 1952 Dublin lecture.

Oddly, American psychologist and philosopher William James originally coined the term in his May 1895 lecture “Is Life Worth Living?” presented to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Harvard University. James meant it to mean a chaotic amoral alternative to the universe we live in.

Today, scientists and science fiction writers prefer Schrödinger’s meaning. The multiverse theory officially emerged with a 1957 paper by American physicist Hugh Everett. Everett actually called it “Relative State Formulation,” but apparently that was too geeky. American theoretical physicist Bryce DeWitt advanced Everett’s idea and came up with the idea of calling it the “many-worlds interpretation” (MWI).

You don’t have to be a cosmologist or an astrophysicist to appreciate the concept of the multiverse. You’ve probably seen it being used in anything from Star Trek to Rick and Morty. Even though it may seem merely to be a common science fiction plot device, MWI is a real thing in science.

Who knows? In another world – another universe – I may be wrangling with the mathematics behind this theory instead of watching football (which is what I’m doing right now).

The story begins with a story I’ve told before (see “It was 50 Years Ago Tonight I Decided to Become an Astronomer,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, January 29, 2017). I was a tiny six-year-old and all I could think about was astronomy. I couldn’t get enough of it.

And who could blame me? It was the middle of the Apollo space program. All America was into space and space exploration. I was simply a product of my times.

OK. Maybe I was a little bit more. Obsessive? Yeah, that might be a better description.

I talked incessantly of space, the stars, the constellations. Whatever subject my eyes and ears could devour, my mouth would spit out. Woe be the innocent bystander within audible range of my endless ramblings. Some saw me as the geek I was. Others listened, themselves captivated by the small elementary school boy, speaking in the tongues of science.

My seventh birthday saw me gladly receive a brand-new telescope. I had been salivating over the idea of having one of my own. I’d look at them in magazines. I’d practice using them in stores. I dreamed of looking deep into the dark skies and discovering worlds I could not otherwise see.

Many-worlds initiative? Not quite, but we’re getting there.

By third grade, my infatuation accelerated to epic dimensions. I’m sure in today’s world some adult would recommend I be medicated. Back then, I was a happy free-range chicken.

And I wasn’t the only one.

I had a competitor. A fellow classmate. I came from a different school with my friends, and he had his group of friends. I saw no need for any competition. He thrived at the thrill of the game.

He seemed to come to class with all my same attributes. He liked everything I liked. He sought to impress the teacher. He sought the eye of the same girl I did. But, most dreadfully, he sought to be known as “the class astronomer.”

This was a big thing. Bigger than “class president,” which lasted only for a week and pretty much everyone got to serve as class president at least once during the school year.

But class astronomer, now that was another thing all together. Every time I mentioned something about astronomy or space exploration, he’d try to top me. Every time I gave an update on the latest Apollo mission, he tried to add another vignette.

As I said, I didn’t view it as much a competition as a collaboration. This seemed to irritate my rival even more.

Finally, on the last day of school, in the boys’ bathroom, we agreed to a treaty. It was executed with a handshake in the presence of witnesses, making it all the more official. We became best buds after that. He even conceded that I, yes, I, was the true class astronomer.

After that, my life in astronomy was a breeze. Of course, I moved away to a new school district that no longer taught astronomy in its science classes. Worse, the Apollo program was waning.

I was thus thrust into a void, a wilderness in which I had to forage for myself. I tried my hand at Estes rockets, but that was more engineering than science. It did have the advantage of teaching me trigonometry by the time I was in fifth grade. (This was needed to determine peak altitude of the rockets. Don’t be impressed. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.)

Through middle school and high school, I voracious consumed the few books pertaining to astronomy contained on the shelves of the school libraries. Don’t even ask about the town library.

My appetite for astronomy could not be abated. In desperation, I asked if I could take an adult astronomy class at the Strasenburgh planetarium. The planetarium only agreed to allow me to enroll if I was accompanied by an adult. Much to my surprise, my father agreed to chaperone me. Thanks, Dad.

Fortunately, Bill Gutsch, then Director of the Planetarium, was the instructor. His entertaining style inspired me. It also pleased my father. He actually encouraged me to take more classes, just so he could hear more from Bill Gutsch. We did take more classes, right up until I went to college.

By the way, you may remember Bill Gutsch as “Dr. William Gutsch,” meteorologist at Channel 13 before moving on to ABC’s Good Morning America. This career arc of his explains why he questioned whether I wanted to become an astronomer. I told him I might like to run a planetarium like he did.

And then I went to college.

Finally, I was able to practice in the field of my dreams. I could have free reign of the university observatory. I could analyze all the photographic negatives of star fields I desired. I could read the journals unabated. In fact, I had an entire astronomy library virtually to myself.


I was the only member of my class majoring in astronomy. In fact, it would be another several years after me before another student would major in astronomy. I was a rare commodity. And I flourished in my astronomy classes.

Alas, there was a caveat.

My major wasn’t “Astronomy,” but “Physics and Astronomy.” It wasn’t “Astrophysics” – a singular major – but a double major of both “Physics” and “Astronomy.”

I was OK with physics, but I didn’t like the fact that it stole time from my work on the astronomy side. It also didn’t help that I was a strict “determinist” (which is an old-fashioned kind of physicist) and not at all enthralled by this “new” (actually almost a century old by the time I was studying it) “acausal” form of physics.

Yes, I hated quantum physics. And quantum physics hated me.

Not really. But the professor teaching Electricity and Magnetism apparently had a less than enthusiastic attitude when it came to me. He didn’t like that I was diagnosed with a concussion (football will do that to you, especially when you’re playing without a helmet) immediately after taking the mid-term.

He didn’t seem to accept the fact that scoring only 3 points out of 150 points on the exam made it obvious I had a concussion. The doctor wrote a note. The dean wrote a note. The chairman of the department wrote a note.

The professor would have none of it. And when he was ordered to allow me to retake the exam, he begrudgingly agreed. But they overlooked telling him he couldn’t count the first abortive mid-term in the calculation of my final grade. As a result of his trickery to include that exam, he flunked me (despite passing all the other tests).

This was much worse than getting a “D” on a paper in Galactic Astronomy sophomore year. (Don’t worry. I ended up with an “A” in the course and about ten years later the Hubble Telescope ended up confirming what I said in that paper was correct.)

Having an “F” on your transcript in one of the courses of your major doesn’t bode well for getting accepted to graduate school. It doesn’t matter if I got pretty much all “A”s in my astronomy classes as well as my math classes. (oh, yeah, did I tell you this double major was really a triple major given the math requirements?)

Would this deter me from pursuing my lifelong dream?

What happens next will have to wait until next time when I’ll take you with me to a world that might have been.

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