What Physicists Mean by Parallel Universes

There's more than one type of parallel universe!
Lawrence Manning, Getty Images

Physicists talk about parallel universes, but it's not always clear what they mean. Do they mean alternate histories of our own universe, like those often shown in science fiction, or whole other universes with no real connection to ours?

Physicists use the phrase "parallel universes" to discuss diverse concepts, and it can sometimes get a little confusing. For example, some physicists believe strongly in the idea of a multiverse for cosmological purposes, but don't actually believe in the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics.

It is important to realize that parallel universes are not actually a theory within physics, but rather a conclusion that comes out of various theories within physics. There are a variety of reasons for believing in multiple universes as a physical reality, mostly having to do with the fact that we have absolutely no reason to suppose that our observable universe is all that there is. 

There are two basic breakdowns of parallel universes that might be helpful to consider. The first was presented in 2003 by Max Tegmark and the second was presented by Brian Greene in his book "The Hidden Reality."

Tegmark's Classifications

In 2003, MIT physicist Max Tegmark explored the idea of parallel universes in a paper published in a collection titled "Science and Ultimate Reality". In the paper, Tegmark breaks the different types of parallel universes allowed by physics into four different levels:

  • Level 1: Regions Beyond Cosmic Horizon: The universe is essentially infinitely big and contains matter at roughly the same distribution as we see it throughout the universe. Matter can combine in only so many different configurations. Given an infinite amount of space, it stands to reason there exists another portion of the universe in which an exact duplicate of our world exists.
  • Level 2: Other Post-Inflation Bubbles: Separate universes spring up like bubbles of spacetime undergoing its own form of expansion, under the rules dictated by inflation theory. The laws of physics in these universes could be very different from our own.
  • Level 3: The Many Worlds of Quantum Physics: According to this approach to quantum physics, events unfold in every single possible way, just in different universes. Science fiction "alternate history" stories utilize this sort of a parallel universe model, so it's the most well-known outside of physics.
  • Level 4: Other Mathematical Structures: This type of parallel universes is sort of a catch-all for other mathematical structures which we can conceive of, but which we don't observe as physical realities in our universe. The Level 4 parallel universes are ones which are governed by different equations from those that govern our universe. Unlike Level 2 universes, it's not just different manifestations of the same fundamental rules, but entirely different sets of rules.

Greene's Classifications

Brian Greene's system of classifications from his 2011 book, "The Hidden Reality," is a more granular approach than Tegmark's. Below are Greene's classes of parallel universes, but we've also added the Tegmark Level that they fall under: 

  • Quilted Multiverse (Level 1): Space is infinite, therefore somewhere there are regions of space that will exactly mimic our own region of space. There is another world "out there" somewhere in which everything is unfolding exactly as it unfolds on Earth.
  • Inflationary Multiverse (Level 1 & 2): Inflationary theory in cosmology predicts an expansive universe filled with "bubble universes," of which our universe is just one.
  • Brane Multiverse (Level 2): String theory leaves open the possibility that our universe is on just one 3-dimensional brane, while other branes ​of any number of dimensions could have whole other universes on them.
  • Cyclic Multiverse (Level 1): One possible result from string theory is that branes could collide with each other, resulting in universe-spawning big bangs that not only created our universe but possibly other ones.
  • Landscape Multiverse (Level 1 & 4): String theory leaves open a lot of different fundamental properties of the universe which, combined with the inflationary multiverse, means there could be many bubble universes out there which have fundamentally different physical laws than the universe we inhabit.
  • Quantum Multiverse (Level 3): This is essentially the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics; anything that can happen does... in some universe.
  • Holographic Multiverse (Level 4): According to the holographic principle, there is a physically-equivalent parallel universe that would exist on a distant bounding surface (the edge of the universe), in which everything about our universe is precisely mirrored.
  • Simulated Multiverse (Level 4): Technology will possibly advance to the point where computers could simulate each and every detail of the universe, thus creating a simulated multiverse whose reality is nearly as complex as our own.
  • Ultimate Multiverse (Level 4): In the most extreme version of looking at parallel universes, every single theory which could possibly exist would have to exist in some form somewhere.
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Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "What Physicists Mean by Parallel Universes." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/types-of-parallel-universes-2698854. Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. (2023, April 5). What Physicists Mean by Parallel Universes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-parallel-universes-2698854 Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "What Physicists Mean by Parallel Universes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-parallel-universes-2698854 (accessed May 30, 2023).