Prologue: My Albanian Universe

Albania, the land of my birth, is a beautiful country along the coast of the Adriatic Sea with the kindest people but the cruelest past. Home to fewer than three million people, the country is just over eleven thousand square miles, only slightly larger than the state of New Jersey and about half the size of Ireland. Yet during my childhood, its totalitarian government wanted us to believe that we Albanians resided at the center of the cosmos.

Until 1991, when Albania’s Communist regime joined its erstwhile ally the Soviet Union in the dustbin of history, my country was the North Korea of Europe: poor, paranoid, and cut off from contact with the rest of the world. Peering beyond our barbed-wire borders was forbidden by an all-powerful government that crushed dissent with internal exile, hard labor, and the death penalty. The state maintained hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers scattered across the country to protect itself against the “Anglo-American threat”; it imprisoned and persecuted many thousands of Albanians in camps modeled on Joseph Stalin’s harsh Soviet gulags. Foreigners were not welcome, and Albanians were not allowed to travel abroad. Inside the country, the government decided where and how you could live. Displays of individuality were punished.

The only place that was open to us was the sky and the stars above. The state could not prevent us from looking up. Even as a young child, I could escape into the sky.

By sheer luck, I had an opportunity for escape that others didn’t. When I was growing up, my mother worked at the Albanian League of Writers and Artists, an organization for artists, writers, and composers. Her workplace had its own special library where I could access books in English, which the state had classified as prohibited Western literature, forbidden to ordinary Albanians. Through these books I traveled to the ends of the world. But I could not share my dreams and imaginings with anyone beyond my parents.

My father anticipated the frustration that boundaries breed in a curious child, so he devised clever ways of using books, art, and music to channel my curiosity and strengthen my mental resilience. Classical music became our encrypted language, a code through which we could escape our everyday circumstances and share our contemplations of the beauty of the universe.

In the eyes of the Albanian Communist government, my father had a “bad biography”—his family had been landowners for generations in pre-Communist times, and because of this, they were continuously persecuted. My grandmother did not see her brothers until 1991; one of them was in jail for nearly fifty years. Several other relatives were forced into camps, shot, or exiled. My dad’s first cousin, an engineer who was part of the project to drain the swamps in Albania after World War II, was taken from his home in the 1970s, shot dead, and carted off. Two decades later, his family found his body at the medical school in the capital city, Tirana, where it was perfectly preserved in formaldehyde and being used to teach anatomy. By then, the dead man’s brothers and cousins were in their seventies, but the corpse they found remained the image of its thirtysomething self. The man finally received a proper burial in 1997.

My dad fared better than his cousin; he was temporarily exiled. This happened several times over the course of my childhood. His first exile occurred when I was five years old and was triggered by a letter.

At the time, my father was a professor of econometrics at the University of Tirana. He had been working on a difficult mathematical problem that had important applications from economy to astronomy. It involved the inverse of very big and very sparse matrices, which resemble massive spreadsheets with hundreds of rows and columns but where most of the entries are zero. This work earned him an invitation from the University of Oxford in Great Britain—he was offered a six-month sabbatical to discuss his new algorithm. But the letter never reached him. It was intercepted by the Albanian government.

Instead of visiting Oxford, my father began his exile at the start of the academic year, my first day of school. That morning he took me to school in my new uniform, holding flowers for the teacher, as if all was well. But because I had overheard my parents’ whispered conversations, I knew he would not be collecting me from school that afternoon or for many days after. Nevertheless, I pretended to be excited so that the hopelessness I felt would not be the last image of me my father took with him to exile.

My mother and I had already lived through much drama in the previous months, a dark time during which my father underwent a process that was euphemistically called an “ideological debate” but that was in fact a trial that would decide his fate and punishment. In those days, there were no defense attorneys or real trials in Albania; the purpose of the “debate” was to have fellow professors and university employees demonstrate to my father that receiving an invitation from Oxford meant he had erred ideologically and as a result, he needed to be punished and rehabilitated. This sham went on every day for two weeks, often until midnight. At the end of the debate, a decision would be made on his punishment, which could be anything from jail, to exile, to the death penalty.

We didn’t know how long the debate would last or what decision would be made. My mother and I waited every night with the lights switched off and our faces pressed against the window, hoping to hear my father’s footsteps before the next tick of the wall clock; we were not allowed to openly show affection to someone who was under investigation by the party. But the memory of the terror we experienced before we finally heard the sound of his footsteps and felt the warmth of his embrace after he closed the front door continues to chill me to my core.

On that first day of school, kids gathered in the schoolyard. One by one, their names were called, and they were sent to smaller groups and introduced to their teachers. My new teacher’s name was Shpresa, which means “hope” in Albanian. I pretended to talk with the other kids after I handed the flowers to my teacher, but I was following my father out of the corner of my eye as he slowly receded from the school fence. I did not dare turn my head. I remember his look of loss and profound melancholy as he glanced back one more time before rounding the corner and vanishing. I did not know when or if I would see him again.

Eventually, my father was allowed to return home for one weekend a month. (Finally, after two years, the government realized they needed his expertise again, so he was released and reinstated at the Academy of Science.) It was during his brief visits that he taught me some of his most enduring lessons—late-night wisdom that I would carry with me on my own journey through the darkness.

In those days, Radio Tirana would broadcast an hour-long classical music program at 11:00 p.m. each Saturday. During his visits, ignoring my mom’s protests, my dad would wake me just before the show began. In the silence of the night, we listened together to the divine notes trickling into the living room from what seemed like the other side of the universe, carried from another space and another time. His whispered commentaries over the music and during these interludes fueled my own lifelong admiration for human ingenuity and achievement.

On one of those Saturday nights, the selection was Bach. His Toccata and Fugue was my dad’s favorite piece, though the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 became my own. “Shh! Listen to this part,” he would say. “It sits at the depth of human condition and misery. It rocks you gently as it rolls down, then farther down, and yet farther until it reaches the bottom. But listen . . . and you can hear—Bach is not disturbed. He is totally serene even in his darkest moments. Can you feel the tranquility in his sadness? He is all too familiar with the human condition and the contrasting emotions of anguish and happiness. He knows the sorrows, like the highs, are part of life.

“He is peaceful,” my father continued, “because he is aware of the root of his problem: His music exists outside of time, and his genius is ahead of his time. But he has made his choice. He has chosen to raise the bar higher, to produce beauty for eternity without regard for what might please contemporary audiences. When composing his works, he is driven by a higher calling, one that comes from within.”

Then onto the allegro. “There now, listen . . . listen, can you hear that?” Suddenly the notes were rising again, gently carrying away the waves of bleakness.

After the music was over, my dad would explain, “You see, Bach knows he has created something special. Many countries had kings, queens, dictators at one time or another in their history. Bach, Beethoven, and many other great composers, mathematicians, and scientists worked for those rulers. But they were not confined by their circumstances. They were driven by their own passion to produce masterpieces.

“Their work made them free. For it is only books, art, music, and discovery that elevates us into truly free human beings. You too can choose to surround yourself with this treasure of knowledge and creativity.”

My dad and I were not musicians, but we found scientific inquiry as inspiring as Bach’s music. Indeed, these whispered conversations provided some of the earliest inspiration for my own scientific journey. There were other early influences too. Perhaps the indoctrination I witnessed during my Albanian childhood chiseled into my personality a desire to seek answers for myself by applying logic and tests, even if sometimes that meant going against established beliefs. But that curiosity took me on an odyssey richer than either my father or I could have imagined: a quest for the underlying workings and mathematically encrypted beauty of the universe.

Today, I live in the United States and am a professor of theoretical physics and cosmology at the University of North Carolina. The universe’s origin is now a central topic of cosmology and one of my main areas of study. And I can seek answers, because, thankfully, in Western academia, no question is forbidden, not even the two greatest cosmological questions of our time: What is the origin of our universe? And what lies beyond?

Since my university days, I have been fascinated by the first of these questions, one that is ages old: If our universe has not always existed, how did it originate? This, in time, led me to ask follow-up questions: What was in place before our universe’s birth, and what is beyond its edges?

These questions were followed by the most radical question of all: Are we simply one universe, a cosmic Albania where the world ends at our borders, or are we part of a larger cosmos, home to many universes—a multiverse, of which our universe is simply one humble member?

Using the latest advances in theoretical physics, I developed and pioneered a theory to help explain the universe’s creation. For the first time, this theory provided an answer to the question of our unlikely origin. But it also went further, offering a glimpse of the vast multiverse in which our own universe sits.

Central to my theory is the notion that we are part of a multiverse—that there are other universes beyond our own. To many critics, the concept of a multiverse is purely speculative, a flight of theoretical fancy that can never be tested and is thus scientifically useless. But as a result of my theory, we have shown the opposite to be true.

In the early 2000s, by applying the laws of quantum physics (such as cross talk between universes in the multiverse due to quantum entanglement) to the problem of the origin of the universe, my collaborators and I derived a series of predictions from our theory. Our predictions demonstrated how we could glimpse the world beyond the borders of our own universe and find its fingerprints engraved right here on our sky.

Taken together, our theory and its testable predictions showed that the answer to the origin of our universe can be scientifically derived, and the existence of the multiverse is in fact testable. Of course, these tests necessarily rely on indirect evidence rather than direct proof, because we will never be able to travel beyond the point of no return—the horizon of our universe, the distance from which not even light can reach us—to obtain the kind of incontrovertible evidence that would satisfy every skeptic. But working with the evidence available to us, we can still learn an awful lot about the birth of the cosmos. And the fact remains that nearly all of the anomalies we predicted have now been observed in our distant skies.

The idea that we live not in a single universe but in a multiverse has been contemplated by philosophers since antiquity. Since the earliest civilizations, human beings have wondered how the universe started, how it will end, and what, if anything, might lie beyond. Many of humanity’s fundamental questions about the universe have changed relatively little over the millennia.

The possibility of many worlds was introduced into Western thought through the influence of the atomists in ancient Greece. Atomists thought of the world as made up of indivisible clumps of matter (atoms) and empty space (voids) through which those atoms moved. In their view, a collection of atoms moving around the voids clumped together to form larger objects, such as stars, planets, and then the whole universe. Because there were an infinite number of atoms and voids, this process could be continuously repeated to form many universes.

The main difference—and it is a crucial one—between these early thinkers and current scientists is that, in the past few centuries, our accumulated knowledge about the theories of nature and technological progress have allowed us to pursue scientific investigations and subject them to observational tests for what had once been purely philosophical ideas. Scientists can now derive and test what previous generations could only imagine.

What we are finding from these theoretical and observational advances is poised to upend centuries of mainstream thinking. Our results also challenge the dream, long cherished by physicists, of discovering a blueprint for a cosmos that contains only a single universe—a dream that entranced many of the greatest minds in theoretical physics in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Albert Einstein among them.

Thanks in part to our work, the idea that our universe is not unique but belongs to a much larger cosmic family—the multiverse—has recently moved from the fringes of cosmology to the scientific mainstream. How that happened and how the idea of the multiverse came to be embraced is the story at the heart of this book.

Why does the origin of our universe matter? Truth be told, many scientists research the universe and its origin out of simple curiosity, not an expectation of immediate, practical applications. To use a distinction that many of these researchers themselves employ, the origins of our universe have traditionally been the purview of pure science rather than applied science.

Evolution has trained humans for the pursuit of science. We possess special traits, such as childlike curiosity and an innate desire to understand our environment, which have led our species to develop larger brains compared to other inhabitants of this planet. These qualities are representations of something known as neoteny, the phenomenon whereby adults retain these characteristics throughout their lives.

Pure science and applied science have different focuses, but they share a powerful symbiotic relationship. Applied science cannot exist without the discoveries made by pure science. And although proponents of pure science may sometimes show disdain for applied science and its practical applications, history has demonstrated that pure science inevitably leads to practical applications that can and do transform our lives.

There is a true story about Michael Faraday, the nineteenth-century scientist who helped unlock the mysteries of electromagnetism: The British chancellor of the exchequer (the country’s equivalent of a minister of finance) visited Faraday’s lab one day. At the end of the visit, the chancellor said, “This is all so incredibly impressive, but what is it good for?” Faraday replied: “I don’t know, sir, but I am sure you will tax it one day.” Indeed, today, billions of humans on the planet pay for electricity and cannot do without it.

If anyone had asked Einstein what his theory of relativity was good for, he might have given the same answer as Faraday. Many of our increasingly indispensable high-tech products, such as GPS devices, are based on Einstein’s work. Modern neuroscience’s mapping of the brain and the electronic trading programs that govern the stock market operate by the same set of quantum principles and rules that Einstein used to explain the motion of the planets and the speed of light in the universe. Human curiosity about how the stars in the sky shine has given us the tools to produce nuclear energy, nuclear medicine, and (unfortunately) nuclear weapons. Understanding stars and structure formation in the universe led to fusion and fission potentially providing green energy here on earth. Internet, Wi-Fi, computing, and all the electronic gadgets that we now depend on, as well as ATMs and wireless bank transfers, medical imaging machines, and modern medical equipment, would not exist without the theory of quantum mechanics that Einstein and his theoretical-science contemporaries helped create.

Someday, we might derive similar benefits from discoveries related to the investigation of the multiverse. Who knows what technological advances might be unlocked if we had a better understanding of our universe’s origins? Who knows what ingenuity and creativity might be unleashed if we allowed our minds to accept a premise that defies centuries of scientific orthodoxy? As we learn more about the true workings of our cosmos, we will find that our greatest scientific breakthroughs and discoveries lie ahead of us.

Being a part of this scientific quest is both daunting and uplifting. But above all else, it is an inspiring process—one that I aim to share with you now. In the pages ahead, I will describe my personal journey through the wonders of the cosmos to seek an answer for our origins and search for evidence of our vaster cosmic family, the multiverse. Just as we once overturned the belief that Earth was the center point of the universe, with the sun, moon, planets, and stars all orbiting our planetary home, now we are demoting our universe from its historic place at the center of the cosmos. In so doing, we are rewriting the story of our own origins.



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