I’ve been thinking about possibilities and parallel universes, Schrodinger’s cat and a physicist called Hugh Everett.
Most people have heard of the idea of parallel universes – that there are multiple worlds, that every time a choice is made the universe splits and the alternative choice takes place in another universe, and so there are many versions of me and you, somewhere, living out alternate lives. The possibilities are limitless.
Of course it sounds utterly fantastical but while I knew it was a theory that emerged from the realms of quantum physics I didn’t think anybody really believed it, I mean really. Then I read Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for The Time Being’.
It’s a superb book, full of ideas, philosophical discussions, a search for meaning intertwined with a great story and some fascinating facts. The appendices, (which are not ‘real’ appendices but appendices added by one of the characters, but nevertheless factual), contain the story of Hugh Everett, and it’s a story that has stuck in my mind ever since. I am almost tempted to start studying maths so I can eventually come to a real understanding of the theory and why the man who came up with it was so convinced of it’s truth that he seemed to stop caring about his own life – everything that could ever happen had happened or was happening somewhere else, so all decisions were pointless.
Everett appears to have been a depressive alcoholic. He died at the age of 51 having left instructions for his wife to throw his remains out with the rubbish. He had been marked out at a young age as an exceptional student but his great theory was regarded with ridicule by many, despite being backed up by solid mathematical proof. He left academia and went on to work for the US defence department on nuclear programmes. In more recent years his many worlds theory has achieved a new level of respect in the world of quantum mechanics, some claim it to be as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity, and interest in it’s originator has grown.
Everett was married with two children. His daughter, Elizabeth, committed suicide in 1996. She left a note that said she wanted her ashes to be thrown out with the garbage so that she might end up in the same parallel universe as her dad. Everett’s wife Nancy died from cancer a couple of years later. The only surviving member of the family is Mark Everett who is lead singer with the band Eels. He didn’t find out about his father’s work until after his death, Mark found his body. An award winning documentary in which Mark learns about his father, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, can be viewed on their website.
It strikes me that there’s a desperate irony in this whole sad story of the mathematical genius who so strongly believed that the many worlds theory was true that he seemed to live as though it meant his own choices didn’t matter. His work began as an attempt to explain the paradoxical thought experiment, Schrodinger’s Cat, yet despite the fact that his solution suggested that there are limitless possible universes out there, limitless possibilities, it’s creator appeared to believe that his own theory was the only possible explanation.