We're living through a revolution in the scientific understanding of reality. Put simply, there seems to be a whole lot more to the cosmos than we once thought. A key figure in this intellectual upheaval is the American physicist Hugh Everett III - or, rather, was: he died in 1982, having made his seminal contribution in the mid-1950s. Known as the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory, it resolves many deep problems in descriptions of reality by claiming that observations cause the universe to split into a vast number of parallel realities.
Not surprisingly, Everett struggled to get fellow scientists to take his ideas seriously. He ended up quitting and working for the US defence industry. By all accounts, his life and personality were as complex as his theory - which may explain the lack of a full-length biography of the man. Now journalist Peter Byrne has taken on the imposing task of describing the many worlds of Everett, with results best described as mixed.
The effort Byrne has put in to understanding the man and his theory is impressive: he quotes from a host of interviews, books and other sources. But the end-result is a confusing mix of straight biography and mind-bending quantum philosophy. It's hard to escape the feeling the author was simply overwhelmed by the sheer range of material he'd ended up with. A brave but flawed attempt at a huge challenge.
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This is a good book, weaving between three themes: Everett's thesis on the 'Many Worlds Interpretation'; his career as a cold-war nuclear strategist for the Pentagon; and his curiously unconventional personal life (swinger, incipient alcoholic, heavy smoker, womaniser, cynic, libertarian, genius).
The 'Many-Worlds' work was his proudest achievement, although he never published a word on quantum mechanics after his thesis paper. The physics establishment ignored the concept for two decades, while individuals around Bohr were poisonously hostile.
The historical treatment works well, showing how the controversies reflected ongoing preoccupations and progress in the community. Cosmology, quantum gravity and decoherence were later catalysts for renewed interest, as was quantum computing (David Deutsch a key visionary here).
Everett's ideas were continually misunderstood, often wilfully. His concept of 'splitting universes' whenever a 'measurement' is made is actually a topological statement that the universe (multiverse) is a network (not a tree, which would fail time-reversibility) consisting of a non-denumerable infinity of evolving universes, each like our presently observed one, linked by 'measuring events'.
Three major issues continue to puzzle researchers. Everett believed he had derived the Born probability rule from his topology: many physicists disagree. The dispute seems highly technical.
Then there is the problem of the 'preferred basis', which reflects that the concept of superposition is itself basis-dependent, so that the act of splitting seems both arbitrary and non-consistent from point to point on the multiverse network (Everett thought this a non-issue as the act of measurement itself presupposes a basis).
Finally, and a point not brought out by the book, the state vector evolves (via the Schrödinger equation) in Hilbert space, not our familiar four-dimensional spacetime. Yet the Everettian multiverse seems to be a network of spacetime universes. How do we get from the ontology of Hilbert space to that of ordinary spacetime? This seems to be an active research question.
Peter Byrne's book has the usual problems of pop-sci. It's conceptually too remote for a purely lay reader while too imprecise for someone who knows some quantum mechanics (the failure to differentiate spacetime and configuration space, for example).
There are the odd errors of authorial comprehension - Byrne does not appear to understand computer science and his explanation of the Halting Problem is just wrong.
Finally, it's hard to write about the people doing the math and computer simulations for thermonuclear warfare, optimal counterforce strategies and assured destruction without taking some moral stance - but it's just parochial judging those guys, including Everett, from the 'superior' standpoint of an impeccable pacifistic-liberal. Biting the hand that fed you, methinks.
If you want to get a handle on the strange birth and tortuous development of the MWI, you couldn't do better than read this book. And as a bonus you get a voyeuristic tour of scarily-dysfunctional Everettian family life as well.
This covers the strange life of Everett very well, and does a fair job of resenting very difficult concepts to lay readers (given that even Feynman said he didn't understand them). The description of cold-war nuclear strategy is chilling. I recommend reading this book if only to learn about that.
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