This post marks a personal milestone! For someone who loves Spider-Man as much as I do, I haven’t really explored Peter Parker’s current exploits since returning to comic reading. I’ve followed his adventures with Deadpool, read a lot of Miles Morales, and flirted with vow renewals…but no Amazing stories. THAT CHANGES NOW! I’ve taken my first real steps into the world Dan Slott’s created for Peter Parker over the last ten years with his “Spider-Verse” storyline. To make this occasion as special as it should be, I figured I’d read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos and see if there was any connection between Spidey’s multiverse jumping and what actual scientists are exploring in regard to multiverse theories.
Before we go any further, I need to reaffirm a few things. First, and most importantly, I am not a science guy. I am fascinated by what science can teach us and enjoy general science reading…but it is well outside my formal academic training. My BA is in Religious Studies. My teaching certification is in Social Studies Education. And my MA is in Pastoral Studies with a concentration in Religious Education. So yeah, I am out of my depth here. Second, any misunderstandings in my application of the multiverse material is entirely the fault of my comprehension. Brian Greene’s book is accessible, enjoyable, and mind-blowingly exciting! Anyone with an interest in the topic should read it, hence the Amazon link here. Through each chapter he alerts the reader when the physics and mathematics discussed will get intense and offers moments to jump ahead, sparing the average reader (like me) headaches with technical talk they can’t follow without compromising general understanding (although I did read everything in the book (save the end notes) so I was proud of my effort!). Third, I’d like to thank Theresa for recommending this book! Theresa is the amazing Biology teacher across the hall from me. She’s also one of my absolute best friends and we team-teach a course called “Atom & Eve: An Interdisciplinary Look at Science and Religion” (I know…right?? Credit for the name goes to a former student).
With that being said, let’s talk some Spider-Man huh?!?!? WOO HOO!!!
It’s hard to describe exactly what it felt like to be reading a new Peter Parker story. It felt so fun! Of all the brilliant, exciting, and powerful things I’ve found since returning to the world of comic book reading, I’ve been missing the things that are amazing, spectacular, sensational, and…uh, web of. There’s still no one like Peter Parker for me! Given our history, this character will always be where my heart is. I quickly fell in love with Dan Slott’s version of him too. It feels like the Peter I grew up with…while also seeming fresh and new.
While the story obviously focused on the mega-team-up of every Spider-Man incarnation ever, I still found it exciting to begin to see the new world Peter Parker’s been living in for the last few years. Immediately I was fascinated by Anna Maria! I knew she was Doc Ock’s lover when he inhabited Peter’s body. I knew she knew he was Spider-Man. And I knew she works with Peter at Parker Industries. I’d glimpsed her, her relationship with Peter, and how she fits into his world from Spider-Man/Deadpool but to really meet her, to really start to learn about her as a character was fantastic! Seeing Peter’s romantic relationship with Cindy Moon was kind of exciting too. That surprised me! I’ve written before about how the loss of Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage when I wasn’t reading comics was an emotional blow but seeing him flirting with Cindy felt fun (I’m sure there’s another post somewhere just on this topic…). The idea of Peter being romantically linked (are they still together? hmm…I have more reading to do) to someone who shares his powers and his crime-fighting lifestyle was an interesting incarnation of the idea of his relationship with the Black Cat from the 80’s. Oh! Starting to meet the people at Parker Industries and getting a sense for what they do was wonderful too. Peter’s world has grown so much!
But, back to the matter at hand, “Spider-Verse” was a storyline that ran through the Spider-Man comics from November 2014 to March 2015. In it the Inheritors – father Solus; sons Morlun, Daemos, Jennix, and Brix; and daughters Vera and Bora – are hunting and killing Spiders across the timelines because an ancient prophecy says it is only the Spiders who can end their reign of control over the multiverse. They vampirically feed on the Spiders’ life force as they kill them and seek certain Spiders – the Other, the Bride, and the Scion – to conduct a ritual to ensure no Spiders will ever come into existence again. Once awareness of what’s happening begins to spread through the multiverse, Spider-U.K. and Doctor Octopus’ Superior Spider-Man begin building two separate Spider-Teams to battle the Inheritors. Ultimately the teams merge and, after a struggle with Ock for the role, our Peter Parker becomes the leader of these webbed warriors as they set out to save the multiverse and defeat the Inheritors.
What is so fascinating about comic books’ use of the multiverse idea is that, as far as comic book science goes, it really isn’t as farfetched as it seems! There’s a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief that goes with reading comics. I can believe the bite of a radioactive spider can give you spider powers as opposed to cancer. I can believe a gamma bomb explosion can unlock a monstrous personification of your inner demons as opposed to blowing you to atoms. And I can believe unguarded bombardment by mysterious cosmic rays can turn you and your family fantastic as opposed to causing degenerative tissue damage. However, if we accept there is a Peter Parker who has the proportionate strength, speed, and agility of a spider, all these versions of Spider-Man bouncing around the multiverse isn’t that ridiculous.
To put the multiverse in context before we get too far, Brian Greene – theoretical physicist, mathematician, string theorist, and professor of physics at Columbia University – begins his book by writing, “The subject of parallel universes is highly speculative. No experiment or observation has established that any version of the idea is realized in nature. So my point in writing this book is not to convince you that we’re part of a multiverse. I’m not convinced – and, speaking generally, no one should be convinced – of anything not supported by hard data. That said, I find it both curious and compelling that numerous developments in physics, if followed sufficiently far, bump into some version of the parallel-universe theme. It’s not that physicists are standing ready, multiverse nets in their hand, seeking to snare any passing theory that might be slotted, however awkwardly, into the parallel universe paradigm. Rather, all of the parallel-universe proposals that we will take seriously emerge unbidden from the mathematics of theories developed to explain conventional data and observations.”
In the book, Greene discusses nine different types of multiverses that rise from these mathematical attempts to further explain the universe – a Quilted Multiverse, an Inflationary Multiverse, a Brane Multiverse, a Cyclic Multiverse, a Landscape Multiverse, a Quantum Multiverse, a Holographic Multiverse, a Simulated Multiverse, and an Ultimate Multiverse. As I read I considered which, if any, the Spider-Verse could fit into. I was surprised at how nicely it fit into what scientists are theorizing about certain types of multiverses! It’s exciting to think that the guy with the spider powers is a greater fictional stretch than the idea that different versions of him could be swinging around a theoretical multiverse. Reading the comics and seeing dozens and dozens of Spider-Men, Spider-Women, and anthropomorphic Spider-Animals on each page was a dizzying experience. Realizing the foundation of the story isn’t 100% improbable is (in the least scientific terms possible) soooo freaking cool.
We can begin by addressing the multiverse theories that don’t fit the idea of the Spider-Verse (namely a seemingly infinite number of universes, each having its own Spider). First, there is the Simulated Multiverse. This idea is essentially The Matrix or the theory that we are not living “in reality” but rather a computer program simulated to mirror reality while we have no way of knowing this isn’t real. It rises from the rationale that in the future our descendents will ultimately reach the point technologically where they can create wildly realistic simulations of reality for academic study (what was life really like in the 21st century?) and pleasure (next-level SIMS or Reality TV) and we have no way of knowing we’re not in one. But Spider-Man isn’t pulling a Neo in the Spider-Verse so it doesn’t really pertain to our discussion here (although it does sorta freak me out).
The same can be said of the Holographic Multiverse. This theory is like a cosmic version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. From the study of black holes, we’ve learned (through math and experimentation I’m not going to try to recount) that what happens inside the black hole (which we can’t see) is mirrored on its horizon (which we can). Applying this lesson generally to all of space, “since the information required to describe physical phenomena within any given region of space can be fully encoded by data on the surface that surrounds the region, then there’s reason to think that the surface is where the fundamental physical processes actually happen. Our familiar three-dimensional reality, these bold thinkers suggested, would then be likened to a holographic projection of those distant two-dimensional physical processes.” While this idea kinda freaks me out too, since Peter isn’t waking up to realize his “reality” is but a shadow of what truly is, this one doesn’t fit the story either.
A few of the multiverse theories concentrate more on the wide variety of types of universes that can be out there, with only a small percentage of the infinite possibilities being suitable for producing life as we know it. These theories are mind-bendingly intriguing but not relevant as the Spider-Verse is about an overwhelming number of Spiders converging, not all the different configurations that may or may not produce life (as we define it) in the multiverse. These include the Inflationary Multiverse, the Brane Multiverse, the Cyclic Multiverse, and the Landscape Multiverse.
The Inflationary Multiverse has universes sharply divided, bubbles moving apart faster than the speed of light with no way to cross between them, driven by the inflationary expansion that drove the Big Bang. Greene uses the analogy of the universe being a block of Swiss cheese, each hole representing a different universe with potentially wildly different properties and growing through an infinite vision of space. Given the potential diversity, we may be the only isolated area of life in the Inflationary Multiverse. The Brane Multiverse comes from String Theory and is the idea that our universe is on one a great many branes floating across ten spatial dimensions. String theory’s mathematics reveal branes exist in all manner of shapes, sizes, and dimensions from membranes (or two-branes (with two spatial dimensions)) up to nine-branes (with nine spatial dimensions). While that could open the door to many Spiders, crossing from one brane to another is impossible. The Cyclic Multiverse rises out of the potential of two different branes bumping into each other. Scientists theorize, if these existed, they would most likely collide every trillion years or so. In a collision like this, everything in each universe would be destroyed as another big bang-like event took place, restarting creation. While it doesn’t fit with the feel of the Spider-Verse stories, it’s fascinating to think of an endless cycle of creation, living, destruction, and rebirth happening on the cosmic scale. Annnnd the Landscape Multiverse? I’ll be honest, this one gave me a serious headache while I read about it. Let’s just move on.
The Ultimate Multiverse is the theory that every possible multiverse and every possible universe within them exist. They’re all there, in some corner of reality, doing their thing. So, obviously, the Spider-Verse could work because the Ultimate Multiverse would contain the theoretical multiverses that can fit the Spider-Verse. But it’s easier (and more logical) to discuss those theories by themselves.
This leaves us with the Quilted Multiverse and the Quantum Multiverse. And, given my (extremely limited technical) understanding of multiverse theories and my (faaar larger) understanding of comic books, either of these could give rise to the sort of circumstances we see Dan Slott explore in this storyline. The Quilted Multiverse comes from working with the idea that space is infinite. If space goes on, forever and ever, infinitely in all directions, the reality of cosmic repetition would give birth to more universes like ours. With an infinite amount of space and only a finite number of ways for particles to be arranged, repetition must logically happen. This would mean there are an infinite number of Michaels – some exactly the same as me, some very similar, some very different, and everywhere in between – kicking around this infinite cosmic quilt. Through infinite space repetition can happen infinitely and that means an infinite amount of Michaels (or Spiders, as the case may be).
It is thus very easy to imagine the Quilted Multiverse hosting our Peter Parker as Spider-Man (Earth 616 in Marvel’s continuity) alongside slight variations like the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon Peter Parker (Earth TRN-123) or the Peter Parker from the 60’s cartoon show (Earth 6799) or the version of Peter who retires from superheroing only to have his daughter May “Mayday” Parker grow up to take over as Spider-Girl (Earth 982). Given an infinite amount of possibilities we can also easily imagine more extreme variations like Spider-Ham (Earth 8311), Spider-Monkey (Earth 8101) or even versions of Peter Parker who have abandoned his moral code like Spider-Assassin (Earth 8351) and Spider-Man Noir (Earth 92100).
The Quantum Multiverse on the other hand is another name for the Many Worlds approach to quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics gives us the idea of a probability wave. Essentially, this wave contains every possible option for a particle or particles in any given situation and it is only when we focus on one that the other potentials become invisible to us. So, for example, if I was eating pizza for lunch there’s the possibility I could pick it up with my hand, eat it with a fork, use a fork and knife, or any other number of combinations. In choosing to use my hands, I then exist at one spot on this probability wave. However, all the other options happen too and are equally real (even if I lack the ability to see them). Each Michael on that probability wave would be unable to see the other options apart from their choice too. It’s not a matter so much of splitting the timeline as it is all possible options existing simultaneously while we only have access to the one our choice shows us.
With all possibilities existing at all times, we see how easy it is for Ben Reilly to still be Spider-Man (Earth 92) somewhere or Doc Ock’s Superior Spider-Man (from the past (Earth 616)) and Miguel O-Hara (from the future (Earth 928)) to exist alongside Peter Parker’s Spider-Man (again, 616). We also see how Gwen Stacy could have been bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter (Earth 65) or Miles Morales could’ve take over after Peter dies (Earth 1610). Billy Braddock could be (a British) Spider-Man in the Captain Britain Corps (Earth 833) or Hawkeye’s daughter Ashley Barton could grow up to be a violently aggressive Spider-Girl (Earth 807128). Hobie Brown could also be the one to get bitten by the spider and challenge President Osborn as Spider-Punk (Earth 138) or Paviitr Prabhakar could become Spider-Man in India instead of New York (Earth 50101).
Both the Quilted Multiverse or the Quantum Multiverse give us the potential for such a wide variety of Spiders to exist. And, as I said above, this is so exciting! Really, reading about this stuff blows my mind. The idea of parallel universe versions of [fill-in-the-blank] is such an classic trope I was blown away when I realized that science certainly doesn’t say it’s impossible. I can’t help wondering what life is like for the various Alternate Reality Michaels too…
The one interesting contradiction all these multiverse theories would offer for the Spider-Verse (and most parallel universe stories I’m familiar with) comes in the form of the principle of mediocrity. Parallel universe stories so often function around the idea that one version is special. In “Spider-Verse” our Peter Parker is revealed to be the Chosen One. You also see versions of these stories where one character is the “main” version and all the others splinter off from it. However, the principle of mediocrity looks at the multiverse and says, “among all intelligent beings, the anthropic assumption goes, we are so thoroughly typical that our observations should be the average of what intelligent beings inhabiting the multiverse would see.” So there’s nothing special about humanity in general. Also, quantum theory looks at a probability wave and reminds us, “nothing distinguished one spike from the other. I emphasize this because it’s essential to realize that neither is somehow more real than the other.” These multiverse theories wouldn’t give us a “chosen” Spider-Man nor would there be any sort of Spider-Prime. Rather, all of the versions of Spider-Man would be equally real and equally important in the grand, cosmic scheme of things. I mean, obviously the different versions could have different talents, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and all that. But one wouldn’t by nature be the root of all the others nor the most important nor really him, even though that is our common reaction when we think of multiverses.
On the subject of the nature of and connection between all the different versions of Spider-Man (or anyone, really, across a multiverse), Greene raises a fascinating theological question. He writes, “I believe that a physical system is completely determined by the arrangement of its particles. Tell me how the particles making up the earth, the sun, the galaxy, and everything else are arranged and you’ve fully articulated reality. This reductionist view is common among physicists, but there are certainly people who think otherwise. Especially when it comes to life, some believe that an essential nonphysical aspect (spirit, soul, life force, chi, and so on) is required to animate the physical. Although I remain open to this possibility, I’ve never encountered any evidence to support it.” What makes up life (and the infinite variations of it the multiverse could hold) is the arrangement of particles. But what happens when you drop the idea of a soul into the mix? Would each infinite version of Michael (or Spider-Man) across the multiverse have their own unique soul? Or could it be possible that each is connected to the same soul? The idea of reincarnation posits our souls move forward through time. Could it be possible they exist across infinite reaches of space too? I have no answer, obviously. But the questions are intriguing!
Dan Slott’s “Spider-Verse” opened the door to modern tales of The Amazing Spider-Man, a door that’s been closed for me since 1998. Indirectly, it also led me to explore the fascinating theories of potential multiverses we may be living in, care of Brian Greene’s brilliant The Hidden Reality. I’m left contemplating not only what else Peter Parker may be up to recently, but also the potential of so many more Peter Parkers throughout the multiverse. I’m also left contemplating more Michael Millers throughout the multiverse. I wonder what sort of lives these other theoretical Michaels could be living. What are their families, love lives, faiths, friendships, blogs, and jobs like? I also wonder whether or not any of them could possibly have the proportional strength, speed, and agility of a spider…
Also, I need to extend a very special thank you to Green Onion as it was his post on Dan Slott’s “Spider Island” last year that first got me seriously thinking about returning to the contemporary world of Spider-Man, excited to see what Dan Slott had been doing with the character. I must also sincerely thank C.W.A.R. from Leave Before It’s Too Late for sharing his joy of Dan Slott’s Spider-Man with me too as well as for showing me science and superheroes can live happily side-by-side on the same blog!
 Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 9-10.
 Ibid., 330.
 Ibid., 331.
 In Book VII of The Republic Plato has Socrates describe a thought-experiment where he calls his listeners to imagine people who have lived their whole lives chained, facing the wall of a cave. Behind them was a fire and in between the fire and the prisoners was a short wall where puppeteers moved statues upon the wall. Being unable to turn, the prisoners would mistake the shadows cast upon the wall and echoes around the cave for reality. As that was all they could see, that was all they’d know and, naturally, presume it to be reality.
 Greene, 296.
 Ibid., 298.
 Ibid., 72.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 131-33.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 134.
 Ibid., 138.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 338.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 242.
 Ibid., 226-27.
 Ibid., 242.
 The overwhelming majority of these parallel-universe Spiders could exist in either a Quilted Multiverse or a Quantum Multiverse. The examples I picked aren’t meant to be seen as exclusive to one version of the multiverse or another. Rather, they help to underscore the variety available in each and keep our discussion grounded in the web-head.
 Greene, 207.
 Ibid., 249.
 Ibid., 260.
 Ibid., 38-39.