Image credit: Hugh Everett III Manuscripts/University California Irvine
By Rowan Hooper
Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics arose from what must have been the most world-changing drinking session of all time. One evening in 1954, in a student hall at Princeton University, grad student Everett was drinking sherry with his friends when he came up with the idea that quantum effects cause the universe to constantly split.
He developed the idea for his PhD thesis – and the theory held up. According to his work, we are living in a multiverse of countless universes, full of copies of each of us. It was sensational.
Max Tegmark of Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said that Everett’s work is as important as Einstein’s work on relativity. But the leading physicists of the Everett’s day, in particular Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, couldn’t stomach it. They couldn’t cope with the idea that every decision we make creates new universes, one for all possible outcomes. Everett had to publish a watered-down version of his idea. Thoroughly disgruntled, he left physics.
What he did next fascinates me, in the light of what he had discovered. Everett joined the Pentagon, and worked in a team calculating potential deaths in the event of nuclear war. His job was to calculate how to maximise the death toll for the Soviets while minimising it for Americans by looking at fallout.
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