The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family by Peter Byrne

This is a book that has the potential to make many groups of specialists unhappy. The historians and scientists, the sociologists, the psychologists and philosophers may all ready themselves right now to start beating their breasts. The author is an investigative journalist with no advertised credentials in any of these areas. Indeed, upon my own investigation into this investigator I quickly hit a wall. He has no wiki entry – a major accomplishment surely indicative of the worthiness of a person with this career path. On the other hand, he does have a detailed website of his own design, in which his formal educational history is revealed to be both brief and irrelevant: an arts BA followed by an MA in theatre. I must say, it gladdens my heart to see that such a book can be the consequence of such a start.

Fortunately, the book will only make these specialists unhappy in specialist ways. In my case, I’m a historian and viewed as a historical work I could easily have spent much of this book cringing. Although it is listed on OUP’s catalogue as history of science – and, of course, it is a book with history in it – the way in which it is written is entirely not that of a historian. Exclamation points. Personal opinion. A proliferation of headlines as one would have in a newspaper/magazine article. As it happens, however, I was led to this book not as a historian, but as a scientific illiterate wanting to read David Wallace on the multiverse and needing to start somewhere much, much simpler. I will not presume to provide a critique of the accuracy of Byrne’s explanation of the science, but I can say that I understand all sorts of things about physics that I didn’t have a clue about before. I’m not going to be a chance to understand Wallace, but I’m going to be a whole lot clearer on what I don’t understand than I would have been prior to reading this book. Progress, I assure you. I’m guessing the average scientist would write much the same from his point of view. Perhaps Byrne’s occupation of investigative journalist has made him suitable for this task. On the one hand, he is used to thinking hard about things, understanding how they fit together, getting to the nitty gritty. On the other, he is, of course, a good writer as well, if in a style that in my opinion could have been altered somewhat for a formal book published by an academic publisher. That, however, is not his fault, it isn’t his job.

And, if it comes to that, perhaps Byrne’s style is desirable. He has, after all, ended up with a book that is a page turner. It’s a book about physics and probability and multipliers and letters to and fro about whether or not the language in a gauche PhD thesis should be toned down a bit and yet it’s nothing if not a page turner. ‘Hey’, you might think to yourself at some point, ‘that was me enjoying reading stuff about quantum mechanics.’ Not just sort of getting it, but enjoying it too. Of course there’s a cat in it, which is going to appeal to the girls in the audience. Possibly a dead cat, it isn’t entirely clear, but that isn’t the investigative journalist’s fault either.

I looked up ‘investigative journalist’ to see what it means to be one and came upon some comments by Phillip Knightley, who I guess is one of the greats in the field.

It should reveal a major injustice or scandal which has been there untouched for some time. The guilty parties should be people of substance. (“Don’t waste time exposing people who earn less than you do,” that great investigative reporter Paul Foot is credited with saying.) It should lead to setting matters right and then legal reform so that it won’t happen again. It should arouse indignation and yet be a good narrative read. Great investigative reporters don’t take no for an answer

Byrne’s book fulfills all this, and, I imagine, Knightley’s observation that it isn’t a glamorous business, a point with which anybody who has been involved in the creation of history will no doubt agree. Most history is nitpicking reevaluation. History like this, from primary sources, unchartered territory, turning a note on a beer coaster into a piece of a jigsaw, that is not easy to do and Byrne does an excellent job. He has woven the odd materials he had to work with into a nice cohesive story despite its disparate tracks. Most obviously this is, as the splendidly 18th century subtitle professes, a three prong story. The multiverse as hit upon by Everett, the cold war with its associated sociopathic behaviour, and the home life story of the American family in a depressing portrayal of a dysfunctional example. To this we can add the early history of software design, game theory (tied in to the cold war, but also its own thing).

But there is also the particular angst of women as they suffered through a period where they were trying to be human beings against great odds. To me this is a separate thread again from the story of the family and one that is close to my heart. Even now we live in a world where we think nothing of the existence of an Everett – his family is really just collateral damage, the inevitable consequence of his Great Mind coming up with this Grand Idea – while looking down on the same pattern of behaviour in women. It is hard to have any respect for the downtrodden pathetic wife, Nancy, but Everett’s mother is a shining example of how much the women who were determined to be independent suffered in this period. Some years ago I was giving advice to an Australian writer who had been commissioned to write about a Melbourne academic who had the habit of freezing on the spot, simply stopping, maybe on the way to the refrigerator, lost in thought sometimes for what seemed like forever to those around her. Even though Joyce, who was writing about this woman, saw herself as a strong feminist and indeed had written books on the subject of feminism, nonetheless she was highly critical of this habit, she simply didn’t understand it at all. My feeling was if she had been writing about a man she wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Byrne pays due attention to Katharine, a nice aside of the main story, though of course relevant since it is hard to resist the interpretation that this is where the cerebral (as opposed to hedonistic) Hugh comes from. A nice juxtaposition too, the mental fragility of this mother and son, the female who has to do it all alone, the male who has a subservient wife doting on him and prepared to do literally anything that is necessary to keep their lives joined together.

Having made the point earlier that investigative journalism takes an injustice and sets it right, one might conclude that in this case it is the lack of credit given Everett in his brief physics career. In fact science is about belief and conservatism, so this story is no more than a particularly spectacular example of one told over and over AND OVER in science. New idea not given appropriate credence. This is certainly not a coverup, but just normal practice, alas. Still, by giving popular access to an example that might end up changing how we see the world and ourselves, Byrne is surely fulfilling the requirements of his trade, whilst doing something it is hard to do from the inside. Academics can’t afford to be brave. Byrne can.

I have more to say about this book from the perspective of how it fits into the changing nature of the bookworld. Stay tuned for part two.

2 thoughts on “The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family by Peter Byrne

  1. String or M-theory is not testable in a experimental sense and nor does it make experimentally testable predictions. As such it is not a scientific theory but a hypothesis. Beautiful mathematics do not make a scientific theory which requires hypothesis plus real supporting data. There is not a shred of evidence, apart from mathematics, to support string theory. There is one consequence of string theory which I assume the believers believe in namely the multiverse. It’s all there in the maths, I think there are supposed to be 10^500 ‘universes’ out there…
    I should state that I don’t think there is any problem with doing speculative research that goes beyond existing experimental results. The problem is knowing when to move on when things aren’t working out.

    As for the many-worlds interpretation of QM, all we need to say is that there is no consensus on the correct interpretation of QM. Most quantum physicists just roll with Copenhagen or some variant because that’s what they were taught as undergrads and they want to work on fields other than QM fundamentals. Also, string theory is a class of theories that can be viewed as a subset of all theories constructible with QM.

    On multiverse theories, let me just say that there are many different ones, which originate from different areas of physics. I’d say that the most popular ones are those of eternal inflation; although these have little to do with ST or the many-worlds interpretation.

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