Study Guide

Dark Matter The Box

By Blake Crouch

The Box

A giant grey box might not be as flashy as a Bugatti, but we promise that there's no other vehicle quite like it. This thing doesn't travel on roads—it travels across universes.

Wait, what?

Yeah, let's explain.

PETA's Nightmare

The concept behind this box goes back to a thought experiment known as "Schrödinger's Cat." Allow us to set the scene. Inside a closed box are a cat, a vial of poison, and a tiny radioactive particle that has a 50/50 chance of decaying over a set period of time. If that radioactive particle decays, the poison releases, and the cat dies. So sad.

Based on one interpretation of quantum theory, this cat is both alive and dead at the same time until someone opens the box. That's because tiny, subatomic particles are said to exist in "quantum superposition" until they are observed, which means that they exist in multiple states of possibility at the same time.

In other words, no matter what actually happens inside that box, nothing happens until it's observed.

(For this to work, you kind of have to follow the dubious reasoning that a cat is unable to observe, because, you know, it's a cat—but we'll let that slide.)

So, is this true in the world of Dark Matter? Let's ask Jason:

The Many-World interpretation of quantum mechanics says yes.

That when we open the box, there's a branch.

One universe where we discover a dead cat.

One where we discover a live one. (7.158-161)

Um, that means that both universes will technically exist: one in which the cat dies, and one in which it doesn't. This is all very theoretical, of course, but it's also totally awesome. That's the type of universe we want to live in. Er—that's the type of multiverse we want to live.

Low Bitrate Reality

So how does stuff about a cat apply to the box in Dark Matter? Well, Jason's box is completely isolated from the outside world, which means that no one can observe, so its contents can remain in superposition. In addition, human passengers must take a drug that turns off parts of the brain before they can take a ride. And what parts of the brain does this drug turn off? The ones used in observation.

Aha.

What's really interesting is that the book's description of the box's interior isn't what it actually looks like. That's because there's no way to describe the multiverse with mere words. Check out Jason's explanation:

"Are we standing in a physical location?"

"I think it's a manifestation of the mind as it attempts to visually explain something our brains haven't evolved to comprehend." (8.29-30)

So, wow, yeah—it's pretty trippy. Though it might seem like a far-out idea, Jason's box is based on a surprising amount of real science. Science fiction, or just plain science? It's complicated.