By now you may have seen them: Breathless headlines flowing through the viral ether declaring that a new study has found the “first” evidence that we live in just one of many different parallel universes.
You might be thinking to yourself that, “It’s amazing! It’s science! The articles use the word ‘study,’ so it must be real! We’re about to enter a new era of space science!”
And you know what? I’m here to be a total buzzkill, and tell you that you’re probably wrong.
One of my favorite things to do is to track how science stories go viral, particularly dubious ones like this. I click my way down to the shadowy depths of the internet where a viral story was born, and as is often the case, the “multiverse” findings involves just one possible interpretation of a study’s results.
Here’s what I found when tracking down this particular canard.
The “parallel universe” viral hit came from one, seemingly off-hand, quote in a press release from the Royal Astronomical Society.
The actual study details the possible origin of a cold spot found in data probing the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is the leftover heat from the moment the universe was formed after the Big Bang. Researchers initially hypothesized that the cold spot is likely a huge void of empty space absent of galaxies, but the new study suggests that isn’t the case.
While it’s possible that the cold spot was the result of random chance, another, far sexier explanation is that the void is the result of our universe slamming up against another sometime billions of years ago.
Here’s the full quote in question, which appears as the second to last paragraph in the press release: “This means we can’t entirely rule out that the Spot is caused by an unlikely fluctuation explained by the standard model. But if that isn’t the answer, then there are more exotic explanations,” study co-author Tom Shanks, said.
“Perhaps the most exciting of these is that the Cold Spot was caused by a collision between our universe and another bubble universe. If further, more detailed, analysis of CMB data proves this to be the case then the Cold Spot might be taken as the first evidence for the multiverse – and billions of other universes may exist like our own.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this quote. It’s a fine quote. Really. The idea of a multiverse is something that’s legitimately studied by cosmologists around the world.
The concept is predicated upon the idea that just after the Big Bang, our universe went through a rapid period of inflation, stretching out in all directions at a breakneck speed. This ended, but according to proponents of the multiverse, inflation continued elsewhere, creating other universes in the process. (Scientists have proposed other versions of this theory as well, but this is the one that seems to be most talked about.)
There may not be a ton of evidence to support the idea that we live in just one of many universes, but it’s not exactly easy to study the earliest moments of our cosmic homeland. That said, scientists are using advanced tools to catch a glimpse of the earliest radiation that represents the start of our universe.
The main issue with the newest round of multiverse press is just that it’s one quote about one study from one person.
But of course, from this quote sprouts a series of stories with breathless headlines about how this is proof of another universe rubbing up against our own.
This isn’t the first time — nor will it be the last — that this type of press release —induced physics craze has happened, so here are a couple of things to keep in mind for the next time you see a bold science claim being batted around on the internet.
Be sure to be skeptical whenever you see multiple stories that use the same quote.
If everyone has the same quote from the same researcher, they probably got it from a press release.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using canned quotes — let the journalist who has not used a press release quote cast the first stone on this one — but as a reader, you should take these stories with a grain of salt knowing that a lot of it probably came from a press release.
And please, remember that science isn’t done by one study alone. Even if the peg for an article is all about a new finding, you should, as a reader, at least expect some kind of context for the new work from the article you’re reading.
So, for now, put these new multiverse findings in the “possible but not proven” column, and know that you’re a little smarter than the parallel universe version of yourself that actually took this study at face value.