Tuesday evening, I was relaxing at home, alone with my cat Twinkle, reading Harpers, The Atlantic, Scientific American and The Economist when the phone rang. Caller ID showed that it was the cell number of my brother-in-law Hank, from whom, at that point, I had not heard anything in quite some time.
Tom: Who else would it be? Where are you?
Hank: In West Virginia.
Tom: Right. Look, Hank, Obama’s not the president anymore. He’s gone. He’s history, okay? So why don’t you and Shannon quit preparing for Armageddon and come down from the hills? Because if Obama was the Antichrist, he sure did a rotten job, didn’t he? Rose misses you. Arthur misses Shannon. And your kids are growing up, Hank – Shannon’s, too. They need their mother and father, they…
Hank: Yeah, yeah, Tom, I get it. Shannon and I are aware that Obama’s gone. And Hank Junior filled me in on the family in Fairfax when he came to visit for Christmas.
Tom: Your eldest son, my nephew, Hank Junior, came to visit you and Shannon for Christmas out there in the wilds of West Virginia?
Tom: And he never even called me to say Happy New Year or anything, much less tell me he had driven all the way out past the middle of nowhere to spend the holidays with you and Shannon?
Hank: Well, he’s been really busy, or at least that’s what he said. Actually, he was combining his visit to see us with scouting for land to buy for an artists’ colony he wants to start.
Tom: An artists’ colony? What – did he win the lottery?
Hank: Actually, it looks like he’s made a lot of money in the art world. His latest line of work is selling like Perrier water at a Bethesda food court.
Tom: Oh, really? What is it?
Hank: He says he’s been doing something he calls “social consciousness corporate crossover art.”
Tom: Any idea what that looks like?
Hank: Well, he told us a little bit about it. His latest thing – he calls it an “installation” – it’s a dumpster with, uh, I donno, um, dummies? Sculptures, I guess, of homeless people in it, with fake garbage and trash in there – all completely deodorized by the way. He says it looks absolutely real but you can’t smell a thing. And anyway, the homeless people are dumpster diving inside the dumpster, see, looking for half eaten pizza slices, double decker cheeseburgers with two bites taken out of them, partially consumed cans of soft drinks, bottles of upscale liquor that still have a little in them, and stuff like that, and he says it’s going into the lobby of a big corporate office in Los Angeles, to show how concerned the billionaires who run it are about homeless people or something like that.
Tom: Okay, so I get the “social consciousness” part, but where does the “corporate crossover” aspect fit in?
Hank: Oh, yeah, that – it’s like, the company is a multinational conglomerate that owns a lot of stuff like pizza parlor franchises, liquor brands, sodas, energy drinks, sandwich shops, burrito bars, fried chicken and burger chains and stuff like that. And the homeless people are grubbing around in the dumpster, see, and everything in it is one of the brands that this corporation owns. They gave Hank Junior like three quarters of a million bucks for it.
Tom: Interesting. So you three had a lot of deep conversations about the End Times and so forth while he was there?
Hank: Four of us, actually – Hank Junior brought his new girlfriend. And yeah, we talked about preparing for the Apocalypse, naturally. That’s what Shannon and I have been doing for years now, so of course we talked about that. We even gave him some tips for installing a survival complex at his artists’ colony. But we talked about other stuff, too, especially alternative universes.
Tom: Alternative universes? How did Hank Junior get into a subject like that?
Hank: Oh, not Hank Junior, his girlfriend. She’s a theoretical physics doctoral candidate at Brown, you know, where Hank studies art.
Tom: Studies? He’s still at it?
Hank: I think he’s a doctoral candidate, or something like that, too, now.
Tom: In that case, I’d say he sure as hell makes a lot more money than the average graduate student.
Hank: Oh, yeah – he’s always made astounding money from that crazy stuff he does. Remember how, when Junior was just in high school, he sold the tarp from our garage floor in Fairfax to that art museum?
Tom: How could I forget? So you discussed… alternative universes… with Hank Junior’s new girlfriend, the theoretical physicist?
Hank: Right. And that’s why I called you.
Hank: She says there are all these things called branes, not brains like in your head, you know; it’s spelled B-R-A-N-E-S instead, and they contain parallel universes, and what’s more, our own universe just sort of happened spontaneously due to something she calls “quantum perturbations.”
Tom: Well, based on what I know about physics and cosmology, yeah, I understand what she was saying. It’s all theory, of course – no experimental models exist which could refute any such hypotheses.
Hank: But be that as it may, Tom, she says that these quantum perturbations happen all the time, way down at a level so small, instead of three dimensions, there are eleven.
Tom: Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. So what?
Hank: So it’s like here you are, living in what you think is one universe, but at any time, a quantum perturbation could shift you into a parallel universe that’s located nearby in an eleven dimensional space time continuum, and you might not even notice for like months or years.
Tom: For example?
Hank: Like, for example, let’s say you live in a neighborhood and there’s some streets over across the main drag from where your house is, and you know that the streets over in there are named after trees in alphabetical order. Then someone at your office buys a home over there and you get invited to a house-warming party and they tell you the address is on Redwood Street. So you drive over there to the party and you notice that the street between Redwood Street and Teak Street is named Sequoia. But you knew, for years, that street was named Sycamore. But when you go back and check, all the town records, all the maps, Google Earth and everything say it’s named Sequoia Street. That’s because at some point since the last time you were over there in that part of your neighborhood where you don’t go very often, a quantum perturbation pushed you into a parallel universe – one that’s slightly different from the one you were in before.
Tom: And so?
Hank: And so who knows what else is different in that other universe? For instance, are you really married, in the strictest sense, to your spouse if they’re from a parallel universe? I mean, how do you even know they came from the same one you did? And if you can slip into a parallel universe without noticing for months or years, what’s to keep you from slipping into another, and another and another?
Tom: Well, all right, I guess if a person saw enough things like that, they might consider it evidence of quantum perturbations, but in my humble opinion, it’s much more likely to be evidence of Alzheimer’s.
Hank: Okay, sure, maybe it could be – but how would you distinguish between the explanations?
Tom: Ockham’s Razor.
Hank: Whose razor?
Tom: William of Ockham, the Medieval philosopher. His epistemological position was that the most simple and straightforward explanation is the most likely one.
Hank: Oh, yeah, Shannon brought that up with Hank Junior’s girlfriend, but Shannon didn’t call it Ockham’s Razor, she just said that everybody knows the simplest explanation for something you observe is most likely to be right. And then Hank Junior’s girlfriend said that the flaw in that line of reasoning is the phrase “most likely,” because at the quantum level, everything is probability distributions that are smeared out all over the universe, which is why we see “spooky action at a distance,” like gravity.
Tom: Or quantum entanglement; yeah, okay, it could be argued that way. So, all right, suppose this young lady is correct. Is there something specific bothering you about it, or are you just fundamentally freaked out about the general concept? More to the point, have you seen anything lately that you could construe to be some sort of… indication… that quantum perturbations have caused you to drift into a parallel universe?
Hank: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have!
Tom: And what’s that?
Hank: The first two weeks of the Trump Administration!
Tom: Trump? Hell, Hank, I sort of figured you and Shannon would be over the moon about the idea of Donald J. Trump finally being sworn in as president of the United States. I mean, you guys both voted for him didn’t you? That is, I assume you both did.
Hank: Well, Shannon did.
Tom: You didn’t? You mean, you voted for Hillary Clinton? Because if so, I’m beginning to think perhaps my nephew’s girlfriend’s cosmological theories are actually correct and I’m in a parallel universe where my brother-in-law Hank is a Democrat!
Hank: No way, Tom! I’m a Libertarian! I voted for Gary Johnson!
Tom: The guy who didn’t know what Aleppo was?
Hank: Aw, come on! He knew! It was a trick question, that’s all! But anyway, don’t tell Shannon. Just to keep the peace around here, I told her I voted for Trump, too. Anyway, after the election in November, followed by Hank Junior’s holiday visit, I’ve noticed what his girlfriend was talking about – the Donald Trump that Shannon voted for isn’t the same one that’s been running the country for the last eleven days.
Tom: Really? How so?
Hank: Well, first of all, it’s not like I thought Trump was going to win, you know? That’s why I didn’t have any heartburn about voting for Gary Johnson, because I didn’t think Johnson was going to win, either. But as a conservative, I’ve been studying Trump ever since he declared, and I feel like I know the guy and what he’s all about. And believe me, Tom, when I saw the Inauguration on TV…
Tom: You guys have TV up there?
Hank: Sure we do – satellite TV. Just because we’re preparing for the collapse of civilization doesn’t mean we don’t believe in technology, Tom. We’re not [expletive] hippies, like those wussies down the road from us who are totally off the grid and [expletive]. Give us some credit, will ya?
Tom: Sorry. Okay, so you watched the Inauguration on TV and then what?
Hank: I saw the pictures of the crowd on the Mall. That was on Friday, January twentieth. So on Saturday, what does Trump do? He claims that the crowd was the biggest in history. And when the TV networks show pictures of crowds at other inaugurations, taken from exactly the same place, and it’s obvious that they were bigger, Trump calls the TV networks liars.
Tom: Yeah, right, he did. So?
Hank: So, the Donald J. Trump from my universe would never have done that!
Tom: I see. You’re certain?
Hank: Damn right I am! The Trump who got sworn in as president of the United States isn’t the same one I know; that Donald Trump would never have made a total [expletive] of himself by denying the obvious, much less treating some piddling issue like the size of the crowd at his Inauguration like it was actually significant! And then what does Trump do? He throws a fit over the popular vote!
Tom: Yeah, so he did.
Hank: The Trump I remember won the Electoral College by a landslide. He knew the rules, he played by them and he won, period. Why would that Donald Trump care about the size of the popular vote? He wouldn’t, because it doesn’t matter! But this Bizarro World Donald Trump, the parallel universe Donald Trump, he not only comes out and says he actually won the popular vote, he says the numbers are wrong because between three and five million people cast fraudulent votes! Tom, that’s completely, utterly insane! For a conspiracy to commit voter fraud on that scale to succeed without detection is totally impossible! But parallel universe Donald Trump not only insists that it’s real, he demands a national investigation to prove it!
Tom: Apparently so, yes.
Hank: And then everybody at the White House starts talking about “alternative facts!” What the [expletive] does that mean? It’s a fact that what goes up must come down, right?
Tom: Unless it goes up at a velocity greater than seven miles per second, yeah.
Hank: So saying that something that goes up at less than a velocity of seven miles per second will not come down isn’t an “alternative fact,” it’s a [expletive] lie, that’s what it is! And here’s parallel universe Donald Trump saying that you can make up [expletive] lies and call them “alternative facts” and that makes them as true as real, honest, actual, provable facts! Okay, so maybe the Donald Trump who got elected president of the United States said a lot of weird, insulting, disturbing things, but Christ Almighty, he never said people can make up their own facts!
Tom: No, I don’t think he did.
Hank: And then he invites the president of Mexico to visit and then he tells the president of Mexico not to bother coming to Washington unless he brings the money to pay for the Border Wall. Tom, that’s completely Looney Tunes! You see how strange this is getting here, Tom? The Donald Trump I know is a master deal maker, and a master deal maker would never do something so idiotic and infantile!
Tom: Hmm… now that you mention it, he probably wouldn’t.
Hank: Then he threw the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff off National Security Council and replaced him with his buddy who runs Breitbart! The Donald Trump my friend Shannon voted for knows the difference between the leader of the United States military and some guy who runs a Web site and furthermore, he realizes which one needs to be on the committee that makes life-and-death decisions about national security, and this thing – whatever it is – in the White House obviously does not!
Tom: Can’t argue with that.
Hank: And what’s more, parallel universe Donald Trump signed an executive order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States, and he specified the wrong [expletive] countries! The Donald Trump I was seriously considering maybe voting for in November would have known which countries the real Muslim terrorist come from and at least included them on the list. But this parallel universe Donald Trump has his head so far up his [expletive], he’s staring at his [expletive] tonsils! And then, we find out that this parallel universe Donald Trump is so stupid, he can’t even write an Executive Order that doesn’t completely screw the [expletive] pooch! I mean, look at the [expletive] mess he made – nobody knew what the [expletive] thing meant! Children got abandoned in airports, feeble grandmothers got arrested by squads of armed Border Patrol agents, sick people trying to get to hospitals in the US were put on airplanes and died while being sent back where they came from! It’s [expletive] ridiculous, that’s what it is!
Tom: Can’t argue with that.
Hank: Okay, so there’s my evidence.
Tom: Given what you’ve been thinking about, I can see why you feel like that, anyway. But tell me something. If your explanation of the situation is correct, then there’s something I’d like to ask.
Hank: What’s that?
Tom: Well, consider this: one possibility is, sometime since the November election, you slipped into a parallel universe where this blithering imbecile Donald Trump was inaugurated president of the United States. But another possibility is, that a quantum perturbation somehow slipped that blithering imbecile into your universe. So which is it? Did you end up in a parallel universe with blithering imbecile Donald Trump, or did a blithering imbecile Donald Trump from an alternative universe end up in yours?
Hank: Uh, um… Let’s see… if I… no, if he… could I maybe look at… would his behavior be… would mine be… could I look at something that I’m sure couldn’t have changed, like the moon or Mt. Rushmore and… no, because what am I sure I know about the moon or Mt. Rushmore… how about stuff around here… but if that hasn’t changed, what would that mean about which… and if it has, then what would… uh, no… ah… duh… I donno.
Tom: Maybe you should call Hank Junior’s girlfriend and ask her.
Hank: Um… ah… okay. But if I can’t understand the answer, can I call you back so you can explain it to me?
Tom: Absolutely. Please do. ‘Bye.