While Wheeler was off in Europe arguing his case, Everett was in danger of losing his student draft deferment. To avoid going to boot camp, he decided to take a research job at the Pentagon. He moved to the Washington, D.C., area and never came back to theoretical physics.
During the next year, however, he communicated long-distance with Wheeler as he reluctantly whittled down his thesis to a quarter of its original length. In April 1957 Everett’s thesis committee accepted the abridged version—without the “splits.” Three months later Reviews of Modern Physics published the shortened version, entitled “‘Relative State’ Formulation of Quantum Mechanics.” In the same issue, a companion paper by Wheeler lauded his student’s discovery.
When the paper appeared in print, it slipped into instant obscurity. Wheeler gradually distanced himself from association with Everett’s theory, but he kept in touch with the theorist, encouraging him, in vain, to do more work in quantum mechanics. In an interview last year, Wheeler, then 95, commented that “[Everett] was disappointed, perhaps bitter, at the nonreaction to his theory. How I wish that I had kept up the sessions with Everett. The questions that he brought up were important.”
Nuclear Military Strategies
Princeton awarded Everett his doctorate nearly a year after he had begun his first project for the Pentagon: calculating potential mortality rates from radioactive fallout in a nuclear war. He soon headed the mathematics division in the Pentagon’s nearly invisible but extremely influential Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG). Everett advised high-level officials in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations on the best methods for selecting hydrogen bomb targets and structuring the nuclear triad of bombers, submarines and missiles for optimal punch in a nuclear strike.
In 1960 he helped write WSEG No. 50, a catalytic report that remains classified to this day. According to Everett’s friend and WSEG colleague George E. Pugh, as well as historians, WSEG No. 50 rationalized and promoted military strategies that were operative for decades, including the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. WSEG provided nuclear warfare policymakers with enough scary information about the global effects of radioactive fallout that many became convinced of the merit of waging a perpetual standoff—as opposed to, as some powerful people were advocating, launching preemptive first strikes on the Soviet Union, China and other communist countries.
One final chapter in the struggle over Everett’s theory also played out in this period. In the spring of 1959 Bohr granted Everett an interview in Copenhagen. They met several times during a six-week period but to little effect: Bohr did not shift his position, and Everett did not reenter quantum physics research. The excursion was not a complete failure, though. One afternoon, while drinking beer at the Hotel Østerport, Everett wrote out on hotel stationery an important refinement of the other mathematical tour de force for which he is renowned, the generalized Lagrange multiplier method, also known as the Everett algorithm. The method simplifies searches for optimum solutions to complex logistical problems—ranging from the deployment of nuclear weapons to just-in-time industrial production schedules to the routing of buses for maximizing the desegregation of school districts.
In 1964 Everett, Pugh and several other WSEG colleagues founded a private defense company, Lambda Corporation. Among other activities, it designed mathematical models of anti-ballistic missile systems and computerized nuclear war games that, according to Pugh, were used by the military for years. Everett became enamored of inventing applications for Bayes’ theorem, a mathematical method of correlating the probabilities of future events with past experience. In 1971 Everett built a prototype Bayesian machine, a computer program that learns from experience and simplifies decision making by deducing probable outcomes, much like the human faculty of common sense. Under contract to the Pentagon, Lambda used the Bayesian method to invent techniques for tracking trajectories of incoming ballistic missiles.