Consider a person measuring a particle that is in a superposition of two states, such as an electron in a superposition of location A and location B. In one branch, the person perceives that the electron is at A. In a nearly identical branch, a copy of the person perceives that the same electron is at B. Each copy of the person perceives herself or himself as being one of a kind and sees chance as cooking up one reality from a menu of physical possibilities, even though, in the full reality, every alternative on the menu happens.
Explaining how we would perceive such a universe requires putting an observer into the picture. But the branching process happens regardless of whether a human being is present. In general, at each interaction between physical systems the total wave function of the combined systems would tend to bifurcate in this way. Today’s understanding of how the branches become independent and each turn out looking like the classical reality we are accustomed to is known as decoherence theory. It is an accepted part of standard modern quantum theory, although not everyone agrees with the Everettian interpretation that all the branches represent realities that exist.
Everett was not the first physicist to criticize the Copenhagen collapse postulate as inadequate. But he broke new ground by deriving a mathematically consistent theory of a universal wave function from the equations of quantum mechanics itself. The existence of multiple universes emerged as a consequence of his theory, not a predicate. In a footnote in his thesis, Everett wrote: “From the viewpoint of the theory, all elements of a superposition (all ‘branches’) are ‘actual,’ none any more ‘real’ than the rest.”
The draft containing all these ideas provoked a remarkable behind-the-scenes struggle, uncovered about five years ago in archival research by Olival Freire, Jr., a historian of science at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil. In the spring of 1956 Everett’s academic adviser at Princeton, John Archibald Wheeler, took the draft dissertation to Copenhagen to convince the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters to publish it. He wrote to Everett that he had “three long and strong discussions about it” with Bohr and Petersen. Wheeler also shared his student’s work with several other physicists at Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, including Alexander W. Stern.
Wheeler’s letter to Everett reported: “Your beautiful wave function formalism of course remains unshaken; but all of us feel that the real issue is the words that are to be attached to the quantities of the formalism.” For one thing, Wheeler was troubled by Everett’s use of “splitting” humans and cannonballs as scientific metaphors. His letter revealed the Copenhagen-ists’ discomfort over the meaning of Everett’s work. Stern dismissed Everett’s theory as “theology,” and Wheeler himself was reluctant to challenge Bohr. In a long, politic letter to Stern, he explicated and excused Everett’s theory as an extension, not a refutation, of the prevailing interpretation of quantum mechanics:
I think I may say that this very fine and able and independently thinking young man has gradually come to accept the present approach to the measurement problem as correct and self-consistent, despite a few traces that remain in the present thesis draft of a past dubious attitude. So, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me say that Everett’s thesis is not meant to question the present approach to the measurement problem, but to accept it and generalize it. [Emphasis in original.]
Everett would have completely disagreed with Wheeler’s description of his opinion of the Copenhagen interpretation. For example, a year later, when responding to criticisms from Bryce S. DeWitt, editor of the journal Reviews of Modern Physics, he wrote:
The Copenhagen Interpretation is hopelessly incomplete because of its a priori reliance on classical physics ... as well as a philosophic monstrosity with a “reality” concept for the macroscopic world and denial of the same for the microcosm.