Flat and Infinite
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 2002
At 52 years of age,
Ralph P. Sidewinder was a short,
thin, slouching man. He combed his wispy grey hair
from the left side of his head all the way over the top,
to cover his bald spot.
He wore thick glasses with square black
frames. The lenses made his eyes look tiny.
Thirty years of tabulating statistics at the
U.S. Census Bureau had obliterated his
native intelligence and curiousity.
During his morning coffee break,
he skimmed a short article in
The article announced that
scientists had proven the universe was
infinite and flat. The article said, in
effect, that the universe stretched out
like an endless tabletop, with stars and
galaxies unfolding forever in all directions.
Sidewinder had been an
astronomy buff in his youth. Many nights he
had gazed at the stars through his portable telescope,
the vast regions of space that hid behind the
thin visible layer.
However, his interest in space
had been buried under years of mundane activity.
Had he managed to retain some of his
curiousity he might have been astonished
by the claims in the newspaper article, for they
were very astonishing indeed.
If the universe
had been curved it could have been
curved in many different ways, like a glove or a raisin.
To say that
the universe was flat was to suggest,
among other things, that
the place looked more or less the
same everywhere. The sculpting hand of chance
had the same raw material, so to speak,
no matter where in the universe it set to work.
To say that the universe was flat and infinite
together was to grant an ironclad certainty
to every possible event, no matter how
implausible it might seem at first.
This was a basic law of probability. Put
another way, an infinite string of random
letters and punctuation would contain all the
books ever written in that alphabet,
every variant of every book, each separated from
enormous strings of gibberish.
Sidewinder neatly folded the newspaper and put
it back on the coffee table. Walking back towards
his desk his attention was briefly diverted by
some commotion out in the hallway. A homeless
person had wandered in from the street and
the secretary in the front office
was in the
process of evicting him from the
premises. Moments later the bum was out the
door and on his way. Quiet
returned to the office as Sidewinder sat back down
at his desk.
Among all the planets in the flat infinite universe,
there were infinitely many just like the Earth.
Infinitely many of these Earth-copies had
versions of Ralph P. Sidewinder.
On some of these worlds, the man called
Sidewinder was slightly shorter or taller,
wore thicker or thinner glasses, had a few more or a few
less hairs combed over his bald spot.
On other worlds, Sidewinder
matched his Earth-counterpart item for item,
molecule for molecule, thought for thought.
On one of the copies-let us call it Earth2-the
man known as Ralph P. Sidewinder-let us call
him Sidewinder2-did not return to his desk
after hearing the commotion out in the hall.
Sidewinder and Sidewinder2 had been outwardly identical
until that point, but just then the imperceptible
differences, which had accumulated over 52 years,
had seen a documentary on the homeless eight
years previously. Before turning off the
television set and falling asleep he had
thought briefly to himself that something should really be done
to help these people. Sidewinder2 had seen the same
documentary, and had thought the same fleeting thought
before falling asleep. In Sidewinder2
the thought had registered with slightly more
force. The documentary had made no lasting
effect on Sidewinder, but had
planted a seed of discontent in
The seed grew year by year, beneath
his awareness, slowly undermining his
Sidewinder2 threw his coffee cup down to the floor. He
bolted out of his office and into the hallway. ``Goddam it,''
he shouted, ``why not give that poor jerk a break?
Why not find out what he needs before
shoving him back out on the street.'' Unexpectedly,
he trembled with rage.
Sidewinder2 looked back into into his dismal
office. He saw the puddle of coffee on the
cheap linoleum floor, saw his styrofoam cup
floating in the puddle.
In his mind's eye he
saw himself standing in the middle of the wasteland
that was his life.
``To hell with it,'' he said, ``I quit!''
Sidewinder2 stormed out the front door
of the U.S. Census Bureau
and into an uncertain future.
Ralph P. Sidewinder figured into the universal plan
in infinitely many other ways.
there was a planet, only a trillion trillion trillion
light years from Earth2, inhabited by
two-headed beings who otherwise looked like squirrels.
The beings had blue fur that glowed so blindingly
they could not look at one another.
They amused themselves by drawing pictures of
aliens. The imagined aliens looked exactly
like Ralph P. Sidewinder, except for a second head.
Another planet, much further out,
had beings shaped like ping pong
balls. For recreation these beings bounced around
on objects identical to ping pong tables, slamming
into paddles operated by mechanical arms the
ping pong balls had designed expressely for this purpose.
Genetics had conspired to paint pictures of Ralph P. Sidewinder
on the surfaces of these living ping pong balls.
However, the balls were completely blind and
had no knowledge of the pictures.
Earth3 was so distant from Earth, Earth2, the squirrel
planet, and the ping pong planet that it made
them look like peas in the same pod.
While identical to Earth2 in its present state,
Earth3 had a radically different history.
Whereas dinosaurs had roamed the surface of
Earth2 long before the advent of Man,
these giant creatures had no actual existence on
Earth3, but rather were the fabrication of a
previous race of humans living there.
This previous race had lived peacefully
for hundreds of thousands of years, developing
a glorious civilization. However, the appearance
of a certain kind of bird on Earth3 drove them insane.
On the majority of
the infinitely many worlds similar to Earth3, the
initial race of humans took little notice of the
for some reason the humans on Earth3 had a
psychological quirk that made them go insane.
A small band of self-appointed saviors on Earth3 launched
a scheme to restore sanity to their race.
They rigged up a
planetwide bomb that would selectively destroy the
unusual birds along with their own species.
themselves in suspended animation, to be
revived exactly one million years after
the detonation of the bomb.
To provide their successors with a clean
in such a way as to create a fake past for
Earth3. The fake record, written in land
formations and fossil deposits, made it appear that
Earth3 had a history
identical to the actual history of Earth and
For countless reasons, the scheme
failed on the majority of the infinitely many
Earth3-copies facing the same crisis.
However, on Earth3 everything came off exactly
as planned. Like everyone
else currently living on Earth3,
Sidewinder3 had no knowledge of the previous
race of humans. The conditions of life
on Earth3 were now indistinguishable from
those on Earth2, and Sidewinder3 experienced
the same feelings of rage and catharsis
as he quit his job at the Census Bureau.
The resurrection scheme also worked on Earth4, but
here there was a twist.
On Earth4 one of the saviors was
a genetic engineer by the name of Tronk Thinwhistle.
Thinwhistle had secretly engineered a race of
supermen, and placed one
of the prototypes in suspended animation
along with himself. His aim was to
enrich the race when it was
revived a million years down the line.
He arranged that the superman
gene would germinate undetected for a thousand
generations. In the thousandth generation
the gene would activate, silently altering the
molecular structure of the carrier until,
given the right stimulus, the new being would
emerge from behind its human facade.
Thinwhistle, like the rest of his species,
had been driven insane by the birds. His
insanity made him obsess over certain details
of his genetic enrichment scheme while completely
neglecting other details. For instance, he
relied on ninety thousand years of accumulated
wizardry in molecular biology to design the
superman gene so that the changes
were completely invisible until the exact moment
of metamorphosis. He reasoned that premature
detection might endanger the budding supermen.
On the other hand, he engineered a metamorphosis so dramatic and
alien that it was almost sure
to cause a dangerous panic wherever it occured.
At times Thinwhistle disdainfully passed over
the practical in favor of the esoteric:
He might have linked to onset of the
metamorphosis to some
predictable biological marker such as puberty
or menopause; instead he linked it to certain kinds
of emotional output, such as
or acute dissatisfaction.
Even though Thinwhistle had
calculating that one thousand generations was the
optimal delay in the activation of the gene,
he had done nothing to ensure that the
gene would actually survive for a thousand
generations. In fact, he made the gene
recessive, to avoid overwhelming the human race with
the new species. The gene did not bestow any advantages
upon its carriers before the thousandth generation
and therefore was subject to the
relentless forces of random selection.
By the thousandth generation, these forces had
nearly crushed the gene out of existence on Earth4.
It was confined to several dozen members of a small prison community
established on a Mexican island.
On Earth5, a virtual copy of Earth4 located elsewhere
in the infinite universe,
the process of random selection had been even
more ruthless, and there was only one carrier in
the thousandth generation. The
carrier was Sidewinder5.
radically different histories, Earth2 and Earth5 had
essentially the same present. In fact, they differed
in only one respect: Sidewinder5 carried the superman
gene, which had been silently working its magic
on his molecular structure for 52 years, whereas
Sidewinder2 was an ordinary man.
The office incident provided precisely the
right stimulus, and thus triggered the sudden
transformation of Sidewinder5 into a
Stepping out of the office building into the
bright Monday morning sunshine,
his apotheosis. His memory became
perfect and he saw his entire life unfold before
him in crystal clear detail. He felt the veil of
dullness fall away as his youthful
intelligence rushed back into his head, augmented
thousands of times. All his little disconnected thoughts,
everything he'd ever read about or learned-
everything unified into a glorious
flowing tapestry of knowledge. His ability
to sense things increased to the point of
practical omniscience. He floated in the
rich, dense sea of experience, sucking it into
himself like a vortex.
Absorbed as he was in these mental phenomena, Sidewinder5
hardly cared that his head had swelled to
fifteen times its normal size. It was now a huge
purple ball and it shot forth
bolts of lightning. A terrified offduty
policeman named Hank Fisk shot Sidewinder5 dead
exactly forty seconds later.
On Earth6, Sidewinder6 underwent the same glorious
change and luckily escaped the bullet.
The homeless person, Bud Oldssen,
wandered into the Census Bureau several minutes
previously, was blessed with extraordinary
hearing. Though already out of the building and
halfway down the street,
Oldssen heard Sidewinder6 shouting on his
There were infinitely many worlds, like Earth6,
where Oldssen had exceptionally good hearing, and
there were infinitely many words where he
became fanatically loyal to anyone
who showed him a kindness, no matter how trivial.
Earth6 was one of the infinitely many worlds in which
Oldssen had both these traits, and furthermore, was
positioned exactly in the right place on the
street outside the Census Bureau.
Positioned as he was, Oldssen
stepped in the path of the bullet, thereby
preventing Hank Fisk from shooting Sidewinder6.
Having escaped the fatal shooting
Sidewinder6 went on to become a living legend.
His wondrous discoveries ushered Earth6 into a new golden
age. Sidewinder6 was worshipped like a diety for the
thousand years of his existence, but did not pass
on his amazing genetic code, for lack of a mate.
Sidewinder7 survived for the same reason on
Earth7, though his survival had a much different
impact on the planet.
Earth7 was similar in many respects to Earth6,
except that a gasoline worshipping cult had
sprung up a decade before Sidewinder7 had his
rendezvous with genetic destiny.
The Gasoline Cult travelled from place to place on
Earth7, depositing large containers of gasoline in front of
houses, buildings, and stores. They filled
street after street, city after city, country
Even the critics of the practice
had to admit the charm and sensuous
pleasure of large open containers of
gasoline filling the planet.
The fascination with gasoline appeared on
infinitely many worlds, but in the
majority of cases the inhabitants exhibited
an overall psychology quite remote from
someone living on Earth6. Even when
the psychology matched the
general practice of the Gasoline Cult
was almost always grossly incompatible with the culture
on Earth6. For instance, it usually required a
certain reverence for fire.
However, in the infinite universe one
worlds in which the fascination with gasoline had somehow
been isolated and compartmentalized, then embedded inside an
Earth6 culture-worlds, in fact, that
matched Earth6 in virtually every detail
except for the details related to
the Gasoline Cult. Earth7 was just such
a place: Men and women
experienced the ticklish
flutterings of first love, the disillusionment of
wilted romance; little children squealed with
delight upon opening their presents at
Earth7 had golf tournamants, outdoor concerts,
art galleries, the National Football League.
On some versions of Earth7 the Gasoline Cult had fallen
short of its final goal, which was the complete linking
of the cities of the world by containers of gasoline. On these
worlds the Cult had run out of money, or gasoline, or
public support; perhaps the leaders had shown a weakness of
resolve or had been exposed as frauds.
On Earth7 nothing of the
sort had happened. The Gasoline Cult enjoyed overwhelming
public support, virtually unlimited access to resources, robust
and inspiring leaders. Rich, powerful members of
society took a keen interest in the Cult and
furthered its interest. On Earth7 it was said with pride
that a person would walk from any town on the planet to
any other along the tops of gasoline containers.
The former employee stood on
the steps of the U.S. Census Bureau on Earth7, absorbed in
fascinating explorations of his internal and external
worlds yet simultaneously grateful that
Bud Oldssen, a fanatically
loyal bum, had taken the bullet meant for him.
There he stood, Sidewinder7, lightning bolts
leaping from his
enormous purple head- unpredicted lightning bolts.
It was only a matter of
time before the inevitable occured. The only
survivors of the apocalyptic blast were
the passengers of aircraft, who watched
the awesome calamity from space. Ironically,
these few survivors perished when their
airplanes ran out of gasoline and were forced to land.
On other worlds the fascination with gasoline was
replaced by the fascination with another chemical
compound, more or less flammible. The great bolts
of lightning emanating from Ralph P. Sidewinder's
purple head interacted with
methane, turpentine, ammonia, vinegar,
corn oil, curburetor fluid,
cherry flavored glue. In their
wake they brought laughter, tragedy,
devotion, indifference, disdain,
panic or apocalypse, depending on the
On some worlds it was not lightning that emanated from
the huge purple head but rather frogs, or
strips of sheet metal, or pieces of paper
filled with holy writing, or wine bottles, or
cans of sand.
The head was not always
a purple ball, but sometimes
a green box, or a whirling potato, or pure sound,
or a cloud of dust mixed
There was nothing special about Ralph P. Sidewinder.
On some planets, Sidewinder stepped back into
the office building and apologized for his
outburst, cleaned up his spilt coffee and went on
with his work. On these planets perhaps the
secretary, Susan J. Winwood, carried
the superman gene and experienced the metamorphosis.
Elsewhere it was the bum, Bud Oldssen,
or Hank Fisk, the offduty cop, or someone else, or
nobody at all.
On other worlds
the metamorphisis might have occured but was
thwarted by the sudden failure
of the air conditioner, or food poisoning,
or the total destruction of the
solar system, or the
wrong note from a bugle.
These and all other combinations
happened inevitably in the flat
infinite universe inhabited by Ralph P.