After his now celebrated theory of multiple universes met scorn, Hugh Everett abandoned the world of academic physics. He turned to top-secret military research and led a tragic private life
*Supplement: The Many Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics
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 dismissed 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 Personally, he was emotionally withdrawn and a heavy drinker.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.
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.