“Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives”: Mark Everett’s dad’s radical “Many Worlds” theory changed quantum physics

By on July 12, 2015

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives is a fascinating 2007 BBC documentary that follows Mark Everett — better known as E, the lead singer of the rock band EELS — across the country as he attempts to unravel the story behind the father he never really knew: the chain-smoking, hard-drinking iconoclastic quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, who died long before Mark could appreciate his father’s professional triumphs and frustrations or attempt to understand his father’s fantastic theory of parallel universes, which he’d published in his controversial 1957 work, Many Worlds Theory.

Mark says “I was in the same house with him for at least 18 years, but he was a total stranger to me. He was in his own parallel universe. He was a physical presence, like the furniture, sitting there jotting down crazy notations at the dining room table night after night. I think he was deeply disappointed that he knew he was a genius but the rest of the world didn’t know it.”

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E’s only memories of his father are of a plump, bespectacled middle-age man sitting in his Barcalounger, scribbling mathematical equations in a notepad and chain-smoking cigarettes, save for the one time he became animated at the mewing of the family cat and screamed “Shut up or die!” which thereafter became the Everett kids favorite catchphrase.

Hugh Everett — described by Scientific American as “one of the most important scientists of the 20th century” — succumbed from a heart attack in his Virginia home in 1982, age 51. It was Mark who found his father’s body in his bedroom. He was 19. Carrying his father’s corpse to the floor, per instructions from the 9-1-1 dispatcher, Mark realized it was one of the few times he remembered having physical contact with the man.

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Mark’s mother Nancy and sister Liz sit between young Mark and his father, Hugh Everett.

Mark’s emotional journey into his father’s life takes him deep into his father’s past life, and his startling interpretation of quantum mechanics, which Mark clearly admits at the beginning he did not understand.

He meets Hugh’s old college friends, colleagues, and admirers, including various nuclear physicists and experts on quantum mechanics, but the most interesting interview comes when Mark meets with Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark, who was one of the few who backed his father’s astounding prediction that parallel universes are constantly splitting off from our everyday reality.

In the BBC documentary, which includes helpful animated sequences explaining much of the heavy stuff, Tegmark enthuses to Mark Everett: “In my personal opinion, your dad’s theory is one of the most important discoveries of all time in science; and I can’t emphasize that enough, how important I think it is.”

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According to Everett’s theory, every event that could occur in a number of ways, even something as simple as how you decided to respond to the above request, triggers a split that generates multiple universes, which collectively contain every possible outcome.

Hugh Everett entered the graduate physics program at Princeton University in the fall of 1953, studying quantum physics under Eugene Wigner and John Archibald Wheeler, and four years later was writing his doctoral dissertation theory of parallel universes.

Although the concept of parallel universes seeped into popular culture, it was considered too way-out for mainstream physicists; and for many years, it remained in the scientific wilderness and remained largely ignored by the scientific community for 20 years, possibly because his hypothesis countered the Copenhagen Interpretation, the most widely accepted view of the many puzzles of quantum physics, developed by ambitious 24-year old Nobel laureate Niels Bohr.

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The Many Worlds theory basically gives physicists permission to think of the entire universe as quantum mechanical, which breaks away from how physicists had been thinking since about 1900, dividing the universe into two different worlds: the indeterministic microscopic world, where elementary particles fly around, and the deterministic macroscopic world, which is the world of our experience, where objects are large, where cause and effect are linked, referred to as the “classical” world in physics.

Hugh Everett’s theory said that we can look at the entire universe as quantum-mechanical. We do not have to have an arbitrary division between the classical and the quantum, an arbitrary division that exists because people had no other way to explain the results they were getting.

Bohr — who, along with Werner Heisenberg, was one of the reigning champs of quantum physics, and rivaled Albert Einstein as one of the giants of the physics world — was harsh in his disregard of Everett’s work, which devastated the young scientist, who, just 27 years old.

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Everett in 1955, with Niels Bohr (age 24)

Dejected and depressed, Everett — described as “peculiar” and “a bit eccentric” in the doc — soon left quantum physics behind to become a defense analyst, conducting classified research for the U.S. Defense Department at the Pentagon — his research job with the Pentagon’s Weapons Systems Evaluation Groups (WSEG), which aided in the development of Minutemen rockets. He became a cold warrior who, with his top secret clearance, was seemed pretty comfortable with the idea of megadeath. He was appointed head of WSEG’s mathematics division in November of 1956, and was awarded his Ph.D. in June 1957.

A month later he was sharing his radical idea about parallel universes with the rest of the world, in the July 1957 issue of Reviews of Modern Physics, a leading physics journal.

In the late 50s, early 60s, he helped draft a report (WSEG Number 50) on nuclear military strategies, and personally briefed incoming Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara on WSEG’s analysis of nuclear war-fighting options, but he was more and more becoming disillusioned with the kind of work he was doing, so, in 1964 (a year after son Mark was born), he joined the corporate world, starting his own defense contractor company with others from WSEG called the Lambda Corporation.

They were leaders in the defense industry in applying mathematical modeling, but Everett was still unhappy that he was working within the world of defense and in 1973, left Lambda and became became wealthy by starting one of the first successful software data-processing companies, DBS, until alcoholism drove him and his company into the ground. A committed atheist, Hugh claimed to have scientifically disproved Christianity and asked that his ashes be dumped in the trash. And so he was.

Today, Hugh Everett’s concept of parallel universes is widely accepted as a new alternative, and the theory has even inspired many films, television series, and books, including The Golden Compass, Star Trek, and The Subtle Knife.

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Tegman again: “And I would put it right up there with Einstein’s relativity theory, Newton’s theory of gravity. And I think 50 years from now, he is going to be even more famous than he is now, when more experiments have been confirmed that this seems to be the way that the world works.”

As an interesting aside, in 1943, when Hugh Everett was twelve, he struck up a correspondence with Albert Einstein regarding irresistible forces and immovable bodies, asking whether it was something random or unifying that held the universe together. Einstein was kind enough to answer: In a letter dated June 11, 1943, he wrote,

“Dear Hugh: There is no such thing like an irresistible force and immovable body. But there seems to be a very stubborn boy who has forced his way victoriously through strange difficulties created by himself for this purpose. Sincerely yours, A. Einstein”

One of the highlights of the documentary when Mark discovers audio casseette tapes, the only known voice recording of his father (there is no known film footage) and Hugh Everett talks about how he first came up with his theory as a young student at Princeton. The tapes were believed lost so they are an important finding for the history of science. For Mark it was also the personal opportunity to hear his father’s voice after a 25-year void.

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Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives also delves deep into the Everett’s family history, including the bouts of mental illness — both Mark’s father and his paternal grandmother both suffered from severe depression, as did his deeply troubled schizophrenic sister, who committed suicide in 1996, saying in a note that she was joining her father in a parallel universe — and the day before the release of his breakthrough album Beautiful Freak, E’s alcoholic mum succumbed to lung cancer.

His sister’s suicide later became the inspiration for the brilliant Electro-Shock Blues, an album which critics loved and record producers hated — and which included tracks titled “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor,” “The Medication Is Wearing Off,” and “Going to Your Funeral, Parts I and II.”

Mark is now the sole surviving member of his immediate family, and the film focuses on his own disconnect from the world as much as it does his immersion into his father’s mysteriously hidden world. He’s also had a bit more tragedy to absorb: E’s tour manager OD’ed, and a cousin died on September 11, 2001, when her hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon.

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While Hugh focused on science, Mark focused on music. Not long after his father’s death, he headed west for Los Angeles, where he knew no one and nothing about the music industry. He worked a succession of nothing jobs while writing and recording songs, along the way mastering the piano, drums, and guitar. He became an accomplished songwriter.

In addition to writing material for their award-winning albums, EELS contributed songs to movie soundtracks, including big budget movies as American Beauty, Hellboy, Yes Man, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, all three animated Shrek films, and many others.

Mark Oliver Everett, now 51, is also the author of a rather rambling and disjointed autobiography, Things the Grandchildren Should Know (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), titled after an Eels song. The irony, of course, is that E has no children. The book is actually full of hope, humor and wry wisdom, exploring physics, depression, and, ultimately, the meaning of life.

An example of that sense of humor comes in the documentary when one of Hugh’s disciples asks Mark ,”How would you like to invent one of the coolest things of all time and have people go ‘Eh’?” Mark answers: “It happens every time I put an album out.”

If you’re interested in reading more about E’s father, and his life and his theories, there’s a fascinating biography of Hugh Everett — The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and The Meltdown of a Nuclear Family (Oxford University Press, 2013) — by Peter Byrne, who was given unprecedented access to Hugh Everett’s personal papers by his son Mark.

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Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives is a BAFTA-winning television documentary broadcast in 2007 on BBC Scotland and BBC Four. It was broadcast on “Nova,” the PBS science anthology, in October 2008.

The documentary was shot and directed by Louise Lockwood and edited by Folko Boermans. The film’s American premiere was held at the 2008 inaugural World Science Festival in New York.

The documentary was shown in full before each concert during the Eels’ 2008 world tour, across the U.S. and half of Europe.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • RobinOfTheWest

    Time travel would negate the existence of parallel universes.