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Multiverses in the movies

By Matin Durrani

Far from being an arcane concept in theoretical physics, the idea of “parallel worlds” and “parallel universes” has for many years served as a source of inspiration for numerous artists, movie-makers and writers, as the Stony Brook University philosopher and historian Robert P Crease discussed in his column for Physics World last December.

The latest – and probably not the last – example of multiple universes in popular culture comes with a new German film released earlier this month entitled Schilf, which means “Reeds” in English.

The film’s based on the bestselling book of the same name by German author Juli Zeh, the English translation of which, rather confusingly, was entitled Dark Matter in the UK and In Free Fall in the US.

Reviewing the book for Physics World in 2010, US science writer Jennifer Ouellette called it “a compelling intellectual thriller”, which she commended for its “meticulous plotting…and lyrical turns of phrase”. You can read her review here.

Anyway, the film version, like the book, features – unusually in the movie world – not one, but two bona fide physicists, in the form of a professor at the University of Jena called Sebastian Wittich (played by Mark Waschke) and an old pal from his student days called Oskar Hoyer (Stipe Erceg), who’s now based at CERN.

According to Ouellette’s review of the book, Sebastian and Oskar are passionate rivals when it comes to physics, and the story begins with the pair discussing the philosophical implications of the possibility of parallel worlds, before quickly veering off to include a kidnapping, a ransom, a grisly death and the unravelling of Sebastian’s life.

“Eventually, an unorthodox detective with a love of physics and an inoperable brain tumour steps in to solve his final case by connecting these seemingly random events,” Ouellette writes.

I’ve only watched the trailer for the film – directed by Claudia Lehmann – so I can’t comment on how closely it follows the novel or if the movie is worth watching.

But the trailer itself looks okay, with realistic-looking shots of a physics lecture hall and a scene inside Sebastian’s home, where his son starts going on about Schrödinger’s cat. Then the cheery (cheesy?) accordion music turns predictably sinister, various mobile phones go off, assorted trains/cars/bikes come and go, an old, beardy guy with dark glasses and a scarf stumbles into view, before a character, with his back to us, admits “I’ve killed someone – but not in this world.” There’s also a glimpse of a place that might, or might not, be CERN.

By the way, a gripe of mine: why is it that mobile phones in movies never have silly ring tones?

More details of the film can be found at

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