The wild history of Hugh Everett III, one of the originators of the Many Worlds theory of Quantum Physics 

Many people find the idea of the multiverse fascinating, but what if we told you that the theory upon which the multiverse was founded was first scorned by the physics community. Hugh Everett III’s ‘Many Worlds Theories’ was frowned upon by his peers at the time, and he lived a rather tumultuous life, dying a tragic death before he could actually be recognized for his work. In this article, we’ll be learning about the life of the man that practically gave us the multiverse.

Early Life and Studies

Hugh Everett III was born on the 11th of November 1930 and was raised by his mother for the first seven years of his life, and then his father later on. His interest in matters of physics started early. At age twelve, he had written to Albert Einstein asking about the nature of the substance that sustained the universe. Although, Einstein’s answer was that what Everett sought didn’t exist, Einstein acknowledged Everett’s grit and stubbornness. In 1949 he would move to Germany with his father.

He attended St. John’s College High School in Washington D.C on a part scholarship and then undertook an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at the Catholic University of America. Although graduating with only his chemical engineering degree, Everett had taken enough classes to also qualify for a mathematics degree.

After his undergraduate degree, he received a fellowship from the National Science Foundation which allowed him to further his studies at Princeton University in the Mathematics department, but during this time he soon drifted into physics, taking his first physics course – Introductory Quantum Mechanics – in 1953.

He went on to gain his master’s degree in mathematics before switching his thesis advisor to John Archibald Wheeler, under whom he wrote several papers on quantum theory including his long form paper on Wave Mechanics Without Probability, later retitled The Theory of the Universal Wave Function. In 1957 he defended his dissertation at Princeton titled ‘On the foundations of Quantum Mechanics’ and received his PhD in Physics.  

John Archibald Wheeler

John Archibald Wheeler met Everett in the University of Princeton, where he served as Everett’s thesis advisor. Wheeler had on one occasion in May 1956 traveled to garner some support or buzz for Everett’s work in Copenhagen, but he had failed to do so. Later, in 1959, Wheeler himself invited Everett to meet Niels Bohr. Bohr was at the time a big name in the Copenhagen physics community. He was the father of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. 

The meeting, however, did not go well, as Everett’s relative-state theory, now known as the many worlds theory, was rejected by the community. Everett himself described the meeting as “hell.” His theory was highly contrasting to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. 

Wheeler did believe Everett was brilliant, like with most of his PhD students, however the pair did not always see eye to eye. One such disagreement was with the presentation of Everett’s thesis. The two had managed to reach a compromise on the matter before it was published, and Wheeler even accompanied the work with a review. However, Everett did not like the final version that was published.

Although Wheeler had tried to help garner support for Everett, he seemed to withdraw from Everett’s theory personally, not wanting his name associated with it, even publicly denouncing it after Everett’s death. When asked what could be behind Wheeler’s behavior towards Everett’s work, Bryce DeWitt, the author of the article that popularized Everett’s teachings explained that Wheeler had adored men like Niels Bohr and did not want to support anything contrary to the ideas or theories in Copenhagen.

Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

Everett’s Many Worlds Theory was known as the relative-state theory when he first propounded it. The theory holds that there is a myriad of worlds that exist in the universe, apart from the world that we are aware of. 

Every time a quantum experiment with several possible outcomes is conducted, all of the results are attained, each in a separate freshly created universe, even if we are only aware of the world with the result we have observed. The explosion of a star during a supernova, for example, creates universes everywhere, not only in physics laboratories. This theory has given us some of the greatest and most imaginative science fiction books, films, and movies, including blockbusters like the Marvel Superhero movies.

Everett developed this theory during his time at Princeton as part of his doctoral thesis in physics. His thesis was accepted in 1957 and then later published as a paper that same year.

What became of Everett’s Theory?

After Everett’s death, many variations of papers and works building on his original theory would be published. However, the first popularization of his work can be attributed to a man named Bryce DeWitt. In 1970, DeWitt wrote an article for Physics Today on Everett’s relative-state theory. He had first been in contact with Everett in 1957, when Everett had written his thesis, but he found it odd that over the years, the theory had not picked up any fame.

“No one was ever talking about Everett for many years. I had a visit in Chapel Hill from-what’s his name? Max Jammer, who was writing a book on the foundations of quantum mechanics, and he had never heard of Everett. And I thought that this was scandalous, because Everett had a brand newidea, it was the first fresh idea in quantum theory in decades, and no one-he was being completely ignored. So I decided to write an article, a popular article, for Physics Today, which really put Everett on the map”

– Bryce DeWitt

DeWitt would also later publish an anthology containing both the original articles from Everett and Wheeler, as well as Everett’s unpublished 1956 paper, The Theory of the Universal Wavefunction. The book was published in 1973.

In 1977, Wheeler organized a conference and invited Everett to speak at the conference and his theory was well received, sparking the interest of some young physicists in the audience. This conference was also where he met Bryce DeWitt in person for the first time.

Everett’s Son

Mark Oliver Everett is well known as a musician and lead singer of the band Eels. However, what many might not know is that Mark Oliver Everett is the son of Hugh Everett III. Mark, like many others knew very little about his dad’s groundbreaking work until his father had actually passed. This says very much about how little acclaim the work received while Everett III was still alive.

Tragic Death

Hugh Everett III would die suddenly from a heart attack in his sleep at the age of fifty-one (51). Everett’s death was attributed to his heavy drinking habit, chain smoking, and obesity. Everett would never go to the hospital for any checkups or to meet with doctors because of his general mistrust for modern medicine. This mistrust had come from what he had learned about Dianetics (now Scientology) when he had been studying at the Catholic University of America. In all, his own disregard for taking care of himself was what had cost him his life.

He had requested his ashes be trashed as he had been an atheist, and although his wife had kept his ashes for a few years after his death on the 19th of July 1982, she had later complied with his wishes and have his ashes thrown away.

Companies

Hugh Everett III founded two known companies during his lifetime. His first job out of college was working for the United States Pentagon in their newly formed Weapons Systems Evaluation Group. During his time there, he founded his first company Lambda Corp in August of 1964 with some of his WSEG colleagues. 

The goal of Lambda Corp was to apply military modelling solutions to civilian problems, Lambda was eventually absorbed into General Research Corp. In 1973, Everett and a former Lambda colleague, Donald Reisler founded DBS Corporation in Virginia. Serving as a contractor under several US Departments, DBS focused on analyzing the socioeconomic effects of government affirmative action.Everett would work at DBS for the rest of his life.

Hugh Everett III founded two known companies during his lifetime. His first job out of college was working for the United States Pentagon in their newly formed Weapons Systems Evaluation Group. During his time there, he founded his first company Lambda Corp in August of 1964 with some of his WSEG colleagues. 

The goal of Lambda Corp was to apply military modelling solutions to civilian problems, Lambda was eventually absorbed into General Research Corp. In 1973, Everett and a former Lambda colleague, Donald Reisler founded DBS Corporation in Virginia. Serving as a contractor under several US Departments, DBS focused on analyzing the socioeconomic effects of government affirmative action.Everett would work at DBS for the rest of his life.

Tragic Death of Everett’s Daughter

Following the death of her father in 1982, Everett’s daughter Elizabeth would sadly take her own life in 1996, requesting her own ashes also be thrown out in the trash so that she could ‘end up in the correct parallel universe to meet up with daddy.’ It is clear that her father’s tragic and sudden death had taken some toll on her, although other factors that led to her taking her own life ae not known to the public.

Conclusion

Hugh Everett III is one of many people who was ahead of their times, but circumstances and closed-mindedness in the community to which they belong have led to their otherwise exceptional work being sidelined or disregarded. Sadly, the case of Everett is that of many like him where recognition for their work comes after their death. Regardless, the many worlds theory has become well known in the physics community, and even beyond. Go to any conference and take a straw poll by show of hands, you might be surprised to learn that Many Worlds is often the most favoured interpretation of Quantum Mechanics by the worlds most eminent thinkers such as Seth Lloyd, David Deutsch, who some claim is the father of Quantum Computing.