Physicists' lost tapes hold key to origin of the multiverse

Through some strange confluence of circumstances, I've spent a lot of time  thinking about quantum theory over the past few weeks. Not in any great depth, mind you, because to understand QT you need to be some kind of super freaky math ninja. Nevertheless, the more mind-bending aspects of the theory have been occupying my mind late, particularly the idea of the 'multiverse'. Since subatomic particles can be in multiple places at once, all quantum possibilities exist simultaneously. The universe is in fact akin to a gigantic stack of photographs depicting all possibilities at once. Only when we measure a particle do we collapse the stack into a single perspective. But the realities implied by the other 'photographs' continue on in distinct universes. So, for example, there is a universe out there where I still have hair, or where Britney Spears is a librarian in Mayor's Income, Tennessee. Or so the theory goes.

The fellah that came up the original idea of the multivers was named Hugh Everett. Not only was Everett a fairly brilliant thinker, but he was also the father of Mark Oliver Everett- better known as 'E', lead singer and songwriter of one of my favourite bands, The Eels. Recently, Everett the Younger made a documentary with BBC4 about his father. Pretty interesting stuff right there. But during the filming something really exceptional happened- a box of lost audio tapes were discovered in Mark's basement. On them, Hugh Everett discusses the inspirations for his 'Many World's Interpretation' (MWI) of quantum theory.

Everett speaks with Charles Misner, a physics professor at the University of Maryland.  He describes how he came up with his theory in response to what he viewed as the more ridiculous aspects of quantum mechanics. And in the background, you can actually hear Mark playing his childhood drum set. He also describes how his doctoral supervisor refused to pass his thesis on to then-guru Nils Bohr. In fact, Everett's conclusions were so alarmingly counter-intuitive that they were largely ignored. Until 1977 anyway, when MWI has a mini-renaissance. Of course, in another universe, Everett's ideas were accepted right away. But we won't dwell on that, because it makes my brain hurt.

All in all, it's a fascinating look into a incredible and controversial theory, a point of departure from the prevailing wisdom that continues to fascinate physicists and science fiction writers alike. Perhaps the newly unearthed tapes will help Everett finally get his due.


Mark Oliver Everett