Since attending the Secret Science Club’s encore screening of the 2007 BBC documentary “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” last week, I’ve been reading everything I can find about Hugh Everett III, one of the world’s pre-eminent quantum physicists and the man who came up with the ground-breaking “Theory of Parallel Universes” almost 60 years ago at the age of 24.
Singer-songwriter Mark Everett, front man for the rock band Eels, grew up not knowing that his father was a genius, or that his dad’s many-worlds theory put him right up there with Einstein and Newton. Hugh Everett died when his son was 19, and, according to Mark, he barely knew his father. So this film chronicles Mark’s journey to understand his father’s profound contributions to science.
Mark visits with Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT, who has spent years working on Hugh Everett’s theories and David Deutsch, a physicist at the University of Oxford, whose “Theory of Everything” builds on Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. (Interestingly, Scientific American magazine’s cover story this month – “Questions about the Multiverse” – refers to the work of both Tegmark and Deutsch, with no mention of Everett as the inventor of the idea.)
Mark also gets a demonstration of the Double-Slit Experiment that shows how subatomic particles, until they are observed, will act as a wave, taking every possible path at the same time. In other words, only when observed, does a particle collapse down to one point as a single particle – and the reality of viewing that one particle is created by the act of observing it.
Before Hugh Everett’s time, physicists had been taught for generations that the equations of quantum mechanics worked only in one part of reality, the microscopic, and were not relevant at the macroscopic level. While this has been disproved in the last decade (see my post dated 6/3/11), it was Everett who first addressed the measurement problem by merging the micro and macro worlds – thinking of large objects as existing in quantum “superpositions,” that is, in two places at the same time.
It was Everett’s radical idea to ask, What if the continuous evolution of a wave is not interrupted by acts of measurement? What if no elements of superpositions are ever banished from reality? What if every time we make a decision, we “break off” into probable selves, with the observable probable self taking one possible path, and other probable selves taking other paths?
There’s mounting interest in Everett’s theories these days, and a biography by Peter Byrne I want to read. In the meantime, I’ll be mulling over this footnote from Everett’s thesis: “From the viewpoint of the theory, all elements of a superposition (all ‘branches’) are ‘actual,’ none any more ‘real’ than the rest.”
I’ll continue to think also about how the implications of Everett’s mathematically consistent worlds apply to thought, decision making, and our ability to create our own reality.