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Commencement Addresses

Parallel Universes

  • Date: 08/26/2006
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • You probably have heard the question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?

    The logical answer is "Yes." And certainly, those of you who have studied physics or psychology will know that without a doubt, the physical energy to create a sound will be there, but that in the absence of a listener, there is no sound.

    For there to be energy to produce a sound, but not to have a listener, is an intriguing question in and of itself.

    Indeed, there is today considerable interest in the concept of parallel universes, namely the idea that other worlds exist alongside our own.

    The theory of parallel universes originated some 50 years ago, when physicists were attempting to rationalize some of the bizarre findings of quantum physics and general relativity.

    Even actor Woody Allen addresses this topic, as only a hard-core New Yorker could: "There is no question that there is an unseen world," he says. "The problem is: how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?"
    (Allen, Woody, Without Feathers, Ballantine Books, February 12, 1986)

    In his book, Parallel Universes: The Search for Other Worlds, theoretical physicist Fred Alan Wolf points out that this question "...introduces a very new and apparently paradoxical way of thinking. In essence, parallel universe theory posits the existence of worlds within our technologically extended senses that must connect or relate with our own."
    (Wolf, Fred Alan, Parallel Universes: The Search for Other Worlds, Simon & Schuster, 1990)

    Sounds more like science fiction than science fact. For some, it conjures up a vision of Lewis Carroll's classic stories about Alice in Wonderland and her enchanting journey through a looking-glass world.

    According to Dr. Wolf, who also wrote the award-winning book Taking the Quantum Leap, "No one who has gazed into a full-length mirror has not at some time thought about the right-for-left twisted world that exists on the other side of the looking glass...wondering if those images were somehow a vision of a truer but stranger reality."
    (Wolf, Ibid, p. 26)

    The implications of parallel universes are fascinating. And, while this challenging concept can lead to interesting discussions about the behavior of matter and forces at the atomic level, we need not go far to find examples of this concept in the human condition.

    Indeed, our communities are nothing more than collections of largely isolated units, or parallel universes.

    Each of us travels in different circles, often based on cultural and societal interests. We support different causes, sports teams and political parties - and seldom do our different circles do much more than show varying degrees of overlap.

    All around us, individuals are born, raised, and go their own way - quite independent of us. They succeed, they fail, they cheat, love, hate and die, but we are not always connected to these actions because we are not aware of what we cannot see; of what is going on in these "parallel universes" all around us.

    What is more, our individual perspectives are sometimes like blinders that restrict our field of vision, so that when we do "cross over" to another person's universe, we have limited appreciation of that person's points of view.

    Learning to appreciate different perspectives - different worlds, if you will - is an important exercise in our personal growth because, for the most part, we assume that it is only our worlds that have validity.

    Political scientists refer to this proclivity of ours as "human partiality" - meaning that we are partial to our own point of view and to our own kin above all else. By the way, that is the basis of "politics" in the most general case.

    To illustrate these ideas, let me tell you about one of the more evocative television commercials in recent history.

    The commercial was filmed in London in the mid-1980s for a prominent newspaper, and I will tell you about it in the words of John Steel, a prominent author in the marketing field:

    ". . . this commercial was shot in grainy black and white, more like a documentary than a commercial."
    (Steel, John, Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning, John Wiley & Sons, February 1998)

    "It opens on a slow-motion scene of a rough-looking skinhead sprinting down the sidewalk of a dull terrace in an old industrial town."
    (Steel, Ibid)

    "A car slows menacingly at the end of the street, perhaps in pursuit. A woman, standing on her doorstep, flinches as the skinhead runs past her."
    (Steel, Ibid)

    "We now see the same scene from a different angle. The skinhead darts past the woman, and this time we see that he's headed toward an old man, who is wearing a long overcoat and hat and carrying a briefcase."
    (Steel, Ibid)

    "The old man raises his briefcase to defend himself as the thug makes a grab for him."
    (Steel, Ibid)

    "The commercial fades to a third scene, another replay of the same action, but this time shot from high up on a building across the street."
    (Steel, Ibid)

    "We see that right above the old man, who is completely oblivious to the fact, a large tray of bricks is being hoisted up the side of a building. It is swaying dangerously, and the skinhead has spotted it."
    (Steel, Ibid)

    "(The skinhead) races down the street... grabs the old man and pushes him back against the wall to protect him as the bricks crash to the sidewalk."
    (Steel, Ibid)

    It makes you think, doesn't it?

    And it makes you think precisely because until you had the opportunity to experience this event from all three of those perspectives, only one perspective, coupled to your preconceptions, could have led to an erroneous and negative conclusion and, possibly, to an unfortunate or misguided action.

    Since each of us digests information differently, we need the benefit of multiple perspectives.

    Too little information can foster untruths or, at best, create oversimplified generalizations. Peer pressure and other factors can dictate who, where and how we stereotype persons, places and even things.

    Our experiences, thus, are limited primarily to those we are close to, and we have little or no experience with those outside our "personal" universe. Until we are forced to look at something, it is as if it does not exist. And when someone goes unnoticed, we are strangers to one another...we become invisible to one another.

    As part of your University of Akron experience, you have met people from diverse backgrounds and cultures - some quite different from your own. You have been exposed to new and expanded perspectives. Hopefully, we have helped you develop a fuller picture of life.

    I hope you will sustain the relationships you have made and that you will broaden your horizons still some more.

    Never assume that it is only your universe that matters. The long and short of it is that when you look in the mirror, you must be willing to look beyond your own reflection.

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