For nearly as long as I can remember, I’ve occasionally experienced a strange feeling that I can’t fully explain. It’s not a physical sensation, exactly. Still, It’s a little like walking on a rolling floor in an old carnival funhouse or approaching a stopped escalator. I think of it as “The Shift.”
It’s not something I talk about often and historically never with people I don’t know well. Doing so has always made me a bit nervous, like I’m afraid they might raise an eyebrow, suspicious over my mental health.
Now, I’m of an age that I care far less about what “they” might think. Besides, over the years, I’ve found others who know exactly what I’m talking about and, from time to time, have had similar experiences. (Don't worry - I'm not naming names. Your secrets are safe with me.)
More than four decades ago, I picked up a copy of Fritjof Capra’s book, The Tao of Physics, and started on a layman’s journey of fascination with the universe of quantum mechanics. The vast majority of the time I spend exploring works of quantum experimentation and speculation, I feel like the proverbial lost lamb who has fallen off of a cliff into a deep alpine lake: way over my head and in imminent danger of drowning. I keep doing it, though, because even though it makes my brain hurt, it’s a good kind of ache, like slightly sore muscles after a good workout.
Neils Bohr said, “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” I can't claim that I understand nearly any aspect of it, but I hit the profoundly shocked stage with almost my first step along the quantum path. One theory, however, has always felt right to me – the idea that ours is but one of an infinite number of universes.
My dad was an Air Force officer. Growing up, I was fortunate that his career gave us the opportunity to live in many different places, including Europe, and that my parents recognized the value of travel.
For three years of my childhood, we lived in Germany. It seemed as though every spare weekend and for every vacation, our family would pile into the car, and we would drive to a new place, usually in a different country. I didn’t recognize at the time what a blessing those experiences were. I do now, though, and am intensely grateful.
I vividly remember being very young, perhaps nine years old, touring the Palace at Versailles and walking into the Hall of Mirrors. I recall tilting my head, looking into a mirror, and seeing seemingly infinite reflections of myself down a gently curving tunnel. Even though the reflected images eventually receded from my view, I understood that they continued forever. Just because I couldn’t see them, I knew that they kept going on and on and on.
As I walked on through the Hall of Mirrors, I wondered how many of my reflected selves were also walking and how many were doing something else. That was the first time I remember feeling something like The Shift.
When I first encountered the theory of multiple universes, I remembered my experience at Versailles and thought, “Of course.” I had found an explanation for The Shift.
If you suppose there are an infinite number of universes in which all possible conditions exist, then there must be universes so alike as to be almost indistinguishable from one another. There is a universe in which the only difference to this one is, let’s say, the cover of that book on the coffee table is red instead of blue. Or, perhaps, the third branch on the tree outside your window has a circumference of an inch and an eighth, rather than an inch and a sixteenth.
Universes might be so close, so overlapping you might slide back and forth between nearly identical universes and never know that you had moved from one to another. Various versions of you, each with its own consciousness, might be in constant cosmic flux, changing places with another without any awareness of change. Nothing within your particular frame of reference would be different.
You could Shift from one universe to another. It could be happening all the time. But you don't know it because nothing appears different.
But what if, sometimes, you do? What if you can sense a Shift, even without knowing why?
Yesterday morning I was following the links inside my “Word of the Day” email from Merriam-Webster (that doesn’t surprise you, does it?) and came upon the word "threnody." It means “a song of lamentation for the dead.” It’s a synonym for “elegy.” It has been in use in English since 1634. Maybe you know it well.
I do not recall ever seeing the word “threnody” before yesterday morning. When I saw it, I felt The Shift.
Maybe I have seen this word but forgot it. Or, I just never chanced across it. I read pretty extensively, but it's possible I missed it.
But what if it doesn’t exist in any of the universes this particular iteration of me occupied before yesterday? What if there is another version of me, not so very far from – indeed, perhaps superimposed upon and virtually indistinguishable from – this one, who knows, uses, and was utterly unsurprised by encountering “threnody”?
Given the limitations of current technology, there is no way to know, but the possibility is consistent with mainstream thought in quantum physics.
Isn't that a kick?