Thursday, May 21, 2009

Parallel universes and wife-swapping

Today, between fields of luminous rapeseed, I drove up to Oxford to see Peter Byrne deliver a talk on the life of Hugh Everett III, the inventor of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Peter is close to completing a biography of Everett, and has been able to draw upon numerous original manuscripts and notes, retrieved with the assistance of Everett's son, Mark (singer and songwriter of Eels), from the family basement.

One thing which struck most of the audience, I think, was the lengths to which Everett's thesis supervisor, the legendary John Archibald Wheeler, went to re-cast Everett's work, not as a radical alternative to Bohr's prevailing Copenhagen interpretation, but as a generalisation of the existing measurement theory. Wheeler appeared to regard Bohr with great awe, and was most anxious not to upset him in any way.

Everett had been fascinated by game theory and operational research prior to starting his work in quantum theory, and after his PhD he immediately left academia to work for the Pentagon's Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG). Here, he was involved in tasks such as calculating the number of worldwide casualities from a full-scale nuclear war. The audience were amused to see a certificate that Everett received upon completion of his first course at WSEG, in which the congratulatory text was inscribed upon a schematic drawing of a mushroom cloud.

Everett, however, does not appear to have been a warm, affectionate individual, and I must admit that I recognise in a number of my own colleagues the same semi-autistic symptoms which Everett exhibited. After a time at WSEG, Everett and his wife wrote a letter to their friends, all of whom were fellow WSEG employees, declaring that their marriage was now an open one. Everett then proceeded to sleep with most of his colleagues' wives.

Everett became increasingly unhappy, drinking and smoking copiously until he died of a heart attack in 1982. His daughter committed suicide in 1996, writing in her suicide note that she wished to be placed with the garbage, so that she might inhabit the parallel universe closest to her father's.


Anonymous said...

you can drive? An alarming thought.

Gordon McCabe said...

I've yet to kill anyone, but it hasn't been for want of trying.

Carol Mooney said...

Ah...but according to the theory, somewhere in the multiuniverse, you probably have ;-)

Gordon McCabe said...

Somewhere in the multiverse, I'm kicking Genghis Khan's butt!