What is An Orthogonal Universe?

“Mathematically” speaking, an orthogonal universe is a universe which is orthogonal to ours. Orthgonality can be thought of as synonymous with perpendicular, but a bit more general. Think of a pencil standing straight up, on its eraser. It is orthogonal to the table.

The whole reason this comes up is because two parallel universes can never meet. Time and time again I hear the expression “when two parallel universes collide” and I, being a mathematician, know that can never be. However, an orthogonal universe will collide with ours. It’s just a matter of when, and if you happen to be standing in the way when it hits.

It is also the title of a project I started way back in 2003, when I was an undergraduate mathematics major at the University of Tulsa. It didn’t always have that title, but the project has more or less always followed the spirit of an orthogonal universe. It was a frame story about a driver and a hitchhiker who tells a story. The “orthogonal universe” was the hitchhiker’s story-world which collided with the driver’s.

Originally, the project was a series of short stories, trades between the driver and the hitchhiker, each trying to outdo each other in terms of outlandishness and ridiculousness. The original title was the title of the first story, History of the Wiener Dog.

History of the Wiener Dog was a two-page story about how the dachshund had subtle influences on history – sort of a Forrest Gump approach, but with less Tom Hanks and more long dogs.

A second short, A Brief History of Number Theory, really paved the way for the current form of An Orthogonal Universe. The number theory short was a take on the history of mathematics. Like with the wiener dog story, I had no intention to even come close to historical accuracy. Sadly, almost the entirety of History of the Wiener Dog has been eliminated by the battle axe of literature. Much of the plot of A Brief History of Number Theory, though, became absorbed into the larger project.

And that brings me to just that. In Fall 2006 I began my Ph.D. in mathematics at NC State University. The first year of doctorate studies is dominated by a series of exams called qualifying exams. The aim is to ensure the student knows enough to carry out independent research. The exams are just about as fun as the name implies. The following Summer (2007) I began preparations for the Fall tests. Needing some sort of creative escape to maintain my sanity, I dusted off the old History of the Wiener Dog and began banging out the first novel of a series of four.

And that is what An Orthogonal Universe is today – a series of four novels, each a story in a different historical era, told by the hitchhiker (referred to as stages for stages of history). Technically, the one I wrote in Summer 2007 was the second stage, not the first. But the seeds were planted, and for the next five years I tinkered with the story.