Hugh Everett, born in 1930, was a physicist. For many years, his HG was Princeton University, where he had a wife and two children. One of those children grew up to be Mark Everett, whose indie rock band is called The Eels. In 2007, Mark produced a documentary about his father called "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives," in which he retraced some of his father's footsteps, trying to gain a greater understanding of a man who had been, to him and many others, an enigma.
The elder Everett spent much of his adult life defending and trying to prove a completely mind-blowing theory, so it's not surprising that he'd be an enigma. His "Everett Interpretation" of quantum mechanics attempts to prove, in layman's terms, scientific and physical support for the notion that every decision creates a parallel world.
So if you're Hugh Everett and you decide to buy the Safeway Select laundry detergent instead of Tide, thereby saving yourself a few dollars, at the point of decision a separate Hugh Everett spins off and buys the Tide, continuing on in a world whose direction is a result of the impact made by his choice to buy Tide instead of Safeway's in-house brand.
Twenty years ago, the opening monologue of Richard Linklater's first feature, "Slackers," (a fine movie and the lodestone of my early- to mid-20s) is delivered by a guy (Linklater himself), who catches a cab after arriving in Austin, Texas by bus. Setting up both the structure and theme of the movie, Linklater's character natters on about the idea that every path you choose not to take is the birth of an alternate you -- the one that decided otherwise. Fans of the TV show "Lost" may find this notion sounding somewhat familiar.
For his troubles, Everett, whose actual interpretation is much stickier and tortuous than my oversimplified take, earned mostly the enmity of his peers. A 1959 visit to the Copehagen lab of Nils Bohr ended with a Bohr groupie calling him "undescribably stupid and couldn't understand the simplest things in quantum mechanics." Eventually, Everett fled academia for jobs in private industry.
It's a mind-blower, but wouldn't it be kind of cool if Everett had been right? What if every decision you made caused an equal "non-decision," which then created a hidden world in which you functioned according to the reality of your "non-decision?" What would you be?
These are the kinds of things that float around in your head when yesterday was your birthday and you turned 45 with a flimsy life resume.
What if, for instance, I'd stayed at Emerson College in the Winter of 1990 instead of crawling back to Seattle with my tail between my legs, only to find that prior to my stupid and ultimately embarassing return, the girl I'd come back for had changed the rules? Would I now be a college writing teacher, living in New England? Would I have gotten a job writing for Spy magazine in New York?
We'll never know.
On the flipside, what if Sandra Bullock hadn't said, "Thanks, but I was talking to him," at the bar on New Year's Eve, 1991 to the guy who sidled up to her as she spoke to the low-rent me and said, "Hey, let me save you from this guy?" I'd already slunk away to the safety of my friends when she came up and re-started our conversation. What if, later that same night, she dropped off her friends at home and said to herself, "It's really late and I don't think I'm up for meeting that guy at that party he told me about?"
It could have happened, leaving me with no reason to go to San Francisco nine months early. I probably would have left Seattle, driven to my parents' house in Orange County and stayed there until grad school attempt #2 began the following September at San Francisco State.
Digging back further, what if my dad had never felt the nagging feeling that his meteoric rise at Stacor, a small office furniture manufacturing company founded by his wife's father and uncle, was due in part to nepotism? Maybe he would have stayed there instead of going off to fend for himself, leading to a couple of truly harrowing years, followed by our California move in 1976.
What if my older sister hadn't veered right one day in 1984, deciding an in instant not to marry the Army Private who'd nursed her back to health after a nasty leg injury almost derailed her post-college Israel adventure? Is there a version of my sister that lives on a farm in North Carolina with a guy named Steve and his dog?
I kind of life imaginging all these other scenarios out there, their visibility limited by our inability to deny the existance of wavefunction collapse as illustrated by Hugh Everett's relative state formulation.
Ironically, though an argument can be made that external pressures got the best of him, the decisions Everett did make during his life were atrocious. Frustrated when the physics community told him to talk to the hand, he spent the balance of his life bouncing from job to job, mostly in the defense industry. While the 1970s brought a renewed but limited interest in his off-beat theories, many-worlds remains a fringe discipline to this day.
Being the lone voice in the wilderness takes its toll. By age 50, a lifetime of chain-smoking, drinking heavy and overeating left Everett an old man in middle age. He died June 19, 1982, at the age of 51. That he believed in something called "quantum immortality" probably didn't take much of the sting away for his son Mark, who discovered the body.
About now we're edging into a favorite territory of mine, in which we weigh the value of individual greatness -- or at least the individual pursuit of greatness -- against its potentially negative effect on one's family and friends. Lord Byron wrote some great poems. He also ditched a wife and three kids who were getting in the way of his genius. I hear Abbie Hoffman was a real pill to get along with, too.
But that's not today's thesis. Today we imagine limitless worlds and weighty decisions, where everyone's potential -- both good and bad -- is realized.