Source Code and the Banality of Parallel Worlds

Apr 24, 2011

Last night my son and I saw Source Code, the new film from Duncan Jones (who directed the amazing science fiction film Moon). The story focuses on a Marine pilot who finds himself sent back in time to just 8 minutes before a train bombing. He returns to the same moment over and over again in an effort to discover the bomber's identity and prevent an even larger dirty bomb from taking out Chicago. Source Code is a rare beast: an intelligent AND sharply paced science fiction film.

The film relies heavily on the concept of parallel realities in the context of quantum mechanics. As I watched the film I was struck by how little anyone needs to explain that idea anymore. It's remarkable how wacky ideas at the forefront of theoretical physics get picked up so completely by culture that they can then be assumed, rather than explained, in the stories we tell each other.

There was, for example, a time when writers needed to explain what a Black Hole was before they used one as a narrative element. Now a Black Hole and its general properties can be assumed and can go on to play whatever function the writer needs to move the story along (suck in hero's spaceship etc). Even though Black Holes are entities living at the boundaries of General Relativity they have become a cultural meme that can be used in other contexts. Parallel Universes a 'la the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics (or the multiverse of modern cosmology) appear to be making a similar transition.

So here is the question. What happens to scientific memes that function this way in culture if they turn out to be entirely false? Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit