Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III

Investigative reporter Peter Byrne has written a fabulous book which traces the life and career of Hugh Everett III, the inventor of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum theory.

Everett devised the Many-Worlds Interpretation for his 1957 PhD thesis, but the interpretation was neglected and derided at the time, and Everett himself never returned to academia. Charting Everett's intellectual and personal adventure, Byrne has uncovered some priceless material. Historians and sociologists of science will be particularly interested to note the pressure exerted by John Wheeler, Everett's thesis supervisor, for Everett to retract and rewrite much of the thesis, so that it would avoid antagonising Wheeler's scientific hero and mentor, Niels Bohr.

Byrne's account of the philosophical issues surrounding quantum theory is amongst the best to be found outside of the professional literature. The author has made a massive effort to understand and explain the concepts involved, and, crucially, has extensively consulted philosophers of physics such as Jeffrey Barrett, Simon Saunders and David Wallace. This level of scholarship is reflected in the final product, which puts most popular science accounts of quantum theory to shame. Byrne should receive huge plaudits for the diligence of his work here.

Everett is a particularly fascinating individual because after completing his PhD thesis, he disappeared into the world of US military research, initially working on the optimisation problems surrounding nuclear warfare. However, the reader seeking an informative, sober, impartial analysis of Cold War politics and strategy will be sorely disappointed here. What we get instead is an unbalanced, sub-Michael Moore, caricature of the era. As just one illustration of this, consider the following claims made by Byrne:

"During much of the 1950s, the de facto strategy of the Strategic Air Command under General Curtis LeMay was to 'preventatively' launch everything in its nuclear arsenal," (p74). "During the 1950s, the operating nuclear war plan of the United States was all or nothing. General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, told a Gaither commissioner that a surprise attack by Soviet bombers would destroy the bulk of his B-52 bombers on the ground. He said that the official doctrine of deterrence by threatening a 'second-strike', or 'massive retaliation', was an improbable dream. He announced that SAC airplanes flew over the Soviet Union 24 hours a day picking up radio transmissions, and, 'If I see that the Russians are amassing their planes for an attack, I'm going to knock the shit out of them before they take off the ground.' And he intended to do this under his own recognizance, regardless of the opinions of civilian leaders, such as the president. Deterrence, for LeMay meant striking first and without warning," (p195).

Other historical analyses suggest, however, that US Strategy in the early stages of the Cold War was one of preemption rather than prevention, and there is a crucial distinction here which Byrne fails to emphasise:

"A first strike can take three forms. A preemptive attack is one made in immediate anticipation of enemy attack. A surprise attack against an enemy who is not yet preparing his own attack is either simply aggressive, or if undertaken from fear of an eventual threat posed by the enemy, preventive...the difference between the preemptive and preventive variants has often been confused, even by professional strategists." (Nuclear blackmail and nuclear balance, Richard K.Betts, p161). "NSC 68 [a 1950 document which formed the basis of US Cold War strategy for twenty years] rejected preventive war but tentatively embraced preemption," (ibid., p162).

Whether General Curtis LeMay privately endorsed a preventive strategy at various times is a moot point. The quote used by Byrne, however, is merely evidence that he supported a strategy of preemption, not one of prevention. Moreover, in a briefing given by SAC in March 1954 concerning its war plans, General LeMay explicitly stated: "I want to make it clear that I am not advocating a preventive war; however, I believe that if the US is pushed in a corner far enough, we would not hesitate to strike first." (Preventive attack and weapons of mass destruction, A comparative historical analysis, Lyle J.Goldstein, p43)

To claim, as Byrne does, that the US Strategic Air Command had a de facto strategy of preventive nuclear war, is therefore quite misleading. On recognising this, one might begin to doubt the veracity of other claims made by Byrne, and that would be unfortunate, because this is otherwise a great book.

As an investigative reporter, Byrne "specializes in uncovering government and corporate corruption." This is an important duty to society, but it is also crucial not to begin with the assumption that all government activity is corrupt. Byrne, sadly, lapses into a simplistic worldview in which most US Cold War politicians, scientists and generals are portrayed as self-serving, war-mongering maniacs. This is a serious flaw in any work which seeks to provide a definitive historical record, rather than mere propaganda.

It also has to be said that the book is peppered with typographical errors, which include frequent misuse of the apostrophe. In a £25 book, this is unacceptable, and it is time for publishers to recognise that a book suffuse with typographical errors is quite literally a defective product.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, on balance Byrne has written a fantastic account of the life of Hugh Everett, and the philosophical conundra posed by quantum theory.


Anonymous said...

Yes, John Wheeler — according to John Gribbon in his book, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat (I read it about twenty years ago so I hope my memory serves me correctly) — eventually dismissed altogether, the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, saying it carried too much metaphysical baggage.

I must get hold of Peter Byrne’s book; it sounds like a riveting read.

Gordon McCabe said...

It seems from Byrne's book that Wheeler generally tried to keep everyone happy most of the time, and this could eventually become frustrating for people. There's some evidence that Wheeler genuinely vacillated over Everett's interpretation, but there's also reason to believe he opposed it from the beginning, and merely wanted to promote Everett as a scientist, rather than endorse the MWI.