- Fifty years ago Hugh Everett devised the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which quantum effects spawn countless branches of the universe with different events occurring in each.
- The theory sounds like a bizarre hypothesis, but in fact Everett inferred it from the fundamental mathematics of quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, most physicists of the time dimissed it, and he had to abridge his Ph.D. thesis on the topic to make it seem less controversial.
- Discouraged, Everett left physics and worked on military and industrial mathematics and computing. Personally, he was emotionally withdrawn and a heavy drinker.
- He died when he was just 51, not living to see the recent respect accorded his ideas by physicists.
More In This Article
Editor's Note: This story was originally printed in the December 2007 issue of Scientific American and is being reposted from our archive in light of a new documentary on PBS, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives.
Hugh Everett III was a brilliant mathematician, an iconoclastic quantum theorist and, later, a successful defense contractor with access to the nation’s most sensitive military secrets. He introduced a new conception of reality to physics and influenced the course of world history at a time when nuclear Armageddon loomed large. To science-fiction aficionados, he remains a folk hero: the man who invented a quantum theory of multiple universes. To his children, he was someone else again: an emotionally unavailable father; “a lump of furniture sitting at the dining room table,” cigarette in hand. He was also a chain-smoking alcoholic who died prematurely.
At least that is how his history played out in our fork of the universe. If the many-worlds theory that Everett developed when he was a student at Princeton University in the mid-1950s is correct, his life took many other turns in an unfathomable number of branching universes.
Everett’s revolutionary analysis broke apart a theoretical logjam in interpreting the how of quantum mechanics. Although the many-worlds idea is by no means universally accepted even today, his methods in devising the theory presaged the concept of quantum decoherence— a modern explanation of why the probabilistic weirdness of quantum mechanics resolves itself into the concrete world of our experience.
Everett’s work is well known in physics and philosophical circles, but the tale of its discovery and of the rest of his life is known by relatively few. Archival research by Russian historian Eugene Shikhovtsev, myself and others and interviews I conducted with the late scientist’s colleagues and friends, as well as with his rock-musician son, unveil the story of a radiant intelligence extinguished all too soon by personal demons.
Everett’s scientific journey began one night in 1954, he recounted two decades later, “after a slosh or two of sherry.” He and his Princeton classmate Charles Misner and a visitor named Aage Petersen (then an assistant to Niels Bohr) were thinking up “ridiculous things about the implications of quantum mechanics.” During this session Everett had the basic idea behind the many-worlds theory, and in the weeks that followed he began developing it into a dissertation.
The core of the idea was to interpret what the equations of quantum mechanics represent in the real world by having the mathematics of the theory itself show the way instead of by appending interpretational hypotheses to the math. In this way, the young man challenged the physics establishment of the day to reconsider its foundational notion of what constitutes physical reality.
In pursuing this endeavor, Everett boldly tackled the notorious measurement problem in quantum mechanics, which had bedeviled physicists since the 1920s. In a nutshell, the problem arises from a contradiction between how elementary particles (such as electrons and photons) interact at the microscopic, quantum level of reality and what happens when the particles are measured from the macroscopic, classical level. In the quantum world, an elementary particle, or a collection of such particles, can exist in a superposition of two or more possible states of being. An electron, for example, can be in a superposition of different locations, velocities and orientations of its spin. Yet anytime scientists measure one of these properties with precision, they see a definite result—just one of the elements of the superposition, not a combination of them. Nor do we ever see macroscopic objects in superpositions. The measurement problem boils down to this question: How and why does the unique world of our experience emerge from the multiplicities of alternatives available in the superposed quantum world?