One of the pioneers of decoherence, Wojciech H. Zurek, a fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, comments that “Everett’s accomplishment was to insist that quantum theory should be universal, that there should not be a division of the universe into something which is a priori classical and something which is a priori quantum. He gave us all a ticket to use quantum theory the way we use it now to describe measurement as a whole.”
String theorist Juan Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., reflects a common attitude among his colleagues: “When I think about the Everett theory quantum mechanically, it is the most reasonable thing to believe. In everyday life, I do not believe it.”
In 1977 DeWitt and Wheeler invited Everett, who hated public speaking, to make a presentation on his interpretation at the University of Texas at Austin. He wore a rumpled black suit and chain-smoked throughout the seminar. David Deutsch, now at the University of Oxford and a founder of the field of quantum computation (itself inspired by Everett’s theory), was there. “Everett was before his time,” Deutsch says in summing up Everett’s contribution. “He represents the refusal to relinquish objective explanation. A great deal of harm was done to progress in both physics and philosophy by the abdication of the original purpose of those fields: to explain the world. We got irretrievably bogged down in formalisms, and things were regarded as progress which are not explanatory, and the vacuum was filled by mysticism and religion and every kind of rubbish. Everett is important because he stood out against it.”
After the Texas visit, Wheeler tried to hook Everett up with the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif. Everett reportedly was interested, but nothing came of the plan.
Totality of Experience
Everett died in bed on July 19, 1982. He was just 51. His son, Mark, then a teenager, remembers finding his father’s lifeless body that morning. Feeling the cold body, Mark realized he had no memory of ever touching his dad before. “I did not know how to feel about the fact that my father just died,” he told me. “I didn’t really have any relationship with him.”
Not long afterward, Mark moved to Los Angeles. He became a successful songwriter and the lead singer for a popular rock band, Eels. Many of his songs express the sadness he experienced as the son of a depressed, alcoholic, emotionally detached man. It was not until years after his father’s death that Mark learned of Everett’s career and accomplishments.
Mark’s sister, Elizabeth, made the first of many suicide attempts in June 1982, only a month before Everett died. Mark discovered her unconscious on the bathroom floor and got her to the hospital just in time. When he returned home later that night, he recalled, his father “looked up from his newspaper and said, ‘I didn’t know she was that sad.’” In 1996 Elizabeth killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving a note in her purse saying she was going to join her father in another universe.
In a 2005 song, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know,” Mark wrote: “I never really understood/ what it must have been like for him/living inside his head.” His solipsistically inclined father would have understood that dilemma. “Once we have granted that any physical theory is essentially only a model for the world of experience,” Everett concluded in the unedited version of his dissertation, “we must renounce all hope of finding anything like the correct theory ... simply because the totality of experience is never accessible to us.”