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Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives May 20, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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OK, it’s Wednesday, but this morning’s post is going to be a quick reflection on an episode of Nova I saw last night on Hugh Everett III and his son Mark, better known as E, the leader of the band Eels.  Perhaps surprisingly for a historian of physics, I’ve been aware of E much longer than I’ve been aware of Everett—back in college we used to play Eels albums a lot.  Their (his) second album, 1998’s Electro-shock Blues is a particularly depressing ride through his reaction to his mother’s death from cancer and his sister’s suicide (but ending in the uplifting “P.S. You Rock My World”).  I did not, however, know that E was Everett’s son.  Hugh Everett died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 51.

Everett is best-known as the progenitor of the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics, which he put out to challenge the Copenhagen Interpretation in the late 1950s as a graduate student at Princeton.  As a way of circumventing the problem of the seemingly arbitrary “collapse” of wave functions when “observed”, he supposes that instead of collapsing, different possibilities propagate in different realities—in its most technical, least ontological manifestation, this is the idea of the “universal” wave function.  Everett’s advisor, John Wheeler, encouraged him, even setting up a meeting with Copenhagen guru Niels Bohr, but found that most quantum physicists rejected his new perspective out-of-hand (egged on behind the scenes by Bohr).

Everett decided against a career in academic physics, going to work for the Defense Department’s Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG), essentially an external analysis group patterned on the individual services’ operations research groups (yes!), and Everett became best known in this period for contributions to operations research theory (yes, again!).  He later established his own defense consulting company.  In the 1970s, as interest in quantum mechanics philosophy re-emerged, Everett discovered that there was now a subbranch of the physics community in which he was held in high regard.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives is most riveting as a biographical study.  Hugh was never apparently very close to his son, and so Mark sets out to understand his father’s work and life.  At this point there’s a lot of pop quantum mechanics, complete with Schrödinger’s Cat, but also a nice demonstration of the two-slit experiment.  This worked less well, since it inevitably leads to the usual Michael Frayn, ohmygod, quantum weirdness is like our lives! I’m starting to understand physics! stuff.

I’m not a fan of the whole getting people to think they understand physics concepts when they don’t understand algebra school of pop science, because I think it detracts from how central mathematical argumentation is to the work of physicists.  But so it goes.  The episode soon settles into a more satisfying biographical groove, which is at its richest as an exploration of E’s life, not really understanding the personality or interests of his physicist father.  For the historians in the house there’s a nice moment when E shows how he kept all his father’s papers in their garage after his mother and sister died.  The best bit is toward the end when they convert some of Hugh Everett’s dictaphone tapes into a playable format, and E hears his dad talking excitedly about his work.  The part that rips the guts out of a fan of both Eels and the history of physics: that his sister said in her suicide note that she was going to go see her father in a parallel universe.

Nova creates a lot of web material to go along with their episodes, and that, too, is worth checking out.

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