Monday, November 26, 2007

Seeing double

There are plenty of rock musicians whose fathers were themselves rock musicians. There aren't quite so many who were geniuses in the field of quantum physics.

'Parallel Universes, Parallel Lives', an hour-long documentary shown on BBC4 this evening, followed Mark Oliver Everett aka E of Eels as he pieced together his dad Hugh's remarkable story - and for this confirmed Everettian (of fils, rather than pere) it was essential viewing.

Hugh Everett III was just 24 when, as a student at Princeton in 1957, he proposed the theory of parallel universes, an alternative to pre-eminent quantum physicist Niels Bohr's Copenhagen interpretation, explaining such things as the apparently bizarre behaviour of photons in the double slit experiment. Everett actually took Bohr on in person, but when the Dane rejected the challenge to his own theory, the Copenhagen interpretation triumphed and the concept of parallel universes was discredited, even if surviving as a suggestive source of inspiration in popular culture.

In the late 70s and 80s, though, the theory began to gain more adherents within the world of physics - too late for Everett, sadly, who had dedicated his life to working for the military (his research was at least partially responsible for the restraint shown by Eisenhower in the atomic arms race) and died in 1982 aged 51. While I suspect that to someone with a firm grasp of the concepts and ideas the science was criminally simplified, I found it illuminating, and it was a fascinating tale of one man's conviction (mathematically substantiated, he felt) and persistence against the odds.

Of course, as the title implies, the documentary was almost as much about E and his relationship with his father. As someone who has drawn so much inspiration (if that's the right word) from the entanglements of his family life and the personal experience of his father, mother and sister all dying prematurely, E was shown gradually coming to a deeper understanding of someone he never really knew: "My father never, ever said anything to me about his theories. 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."

The journey wasn't always easy - E's discomfort and trepidation before listening to a collection of old tapes left lying in boxes was palpable, but it was poignant when he pressed play and heard his father's voice talking physics with his childhood self bashing away on the drums in the background. Inevitably, what with E being a bit of a prankster, there were laughs along the way (most memorably when the man who once dressed as the Unabomber for an album cover expressed his amazement at getting clearance to get into the heart of the Pentagon), and I was left thinking that there's a bit of father in the son, if you look at E's intense observation of the minutiae of life and appreciation of the enormity of the cosmos and our insignificance within it.

Here's to BBC4 for an excellent hour's viewing.


Russ L said...

The Copenhagen Interpretation illustrated: tee hee hee.

I saw this too, and thought it was really good. One of the most interesting titbits I learned (as someone else with no scientific background) was that Schrodinger's Cat was actually meant to expose the absurdities of quantum duality, rather than illustrate the wonder of them as I'd always previously thought. I'd completely got the wrong end of the stick there.

Great stuff, anyway. Hurrah for you saying hurrah to it.

Ben said...

Re Schrodinger's Cat - me too! As I said, it was educational as well as entertaining...