Many Worlds in One

The other day I saw a fascinating NOVA program on PBS.  It is called Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives and it focuses on Hugh Everett and his son Mark. On the surface the two seem completely different but they are actually linked in an interesting way. In the end, the life of the father explains the life of the son.

In the early 60’s Hugh was a physicist for the Pentagon working as a cold war scientist.  Frustrated with the prevailing views of quantum physics (which I will not even begin to explain) he started exploring other types of particle theories.  Eventually he came up with the Many World’s Theory.  As best as I can grasp this theory looked at particles  at their own level- not at how they created larger phenomenon.  According to the NOVA program this view broke with tradition and was the beginning of Everett’s theories.  Looking at the world on such a small level he noticed energy behaving differently.  (Like I said I am way out of my element in explaining this).  Here’s how NOVA explains it:

Byrne: In order to demonstrate the consequence of this mathematically, Everett came up with a solution showing that the observer, the human being, correlates with every possible state that the gram of carbon, that pencil tip, could be in. So before the human being looks at the gram of carbon, the carbon is in all the millions or billions or trillions of possible states, and after the human looks at the gram of carbon, he or she is in one state. In Everett’s theory, what happens in between, as it were, when the human actually looks at the carbon—or a clock or any other object—is that he or she splits like an amoeba. (The act of looking, that interaction, is just exchanging energy. A person looking at a clock, for example, is an energetic interaction, with photons of light bouncing off the clock and going into the person’s eye.)

So, in Everett’s view, when the human correlates herself—that is, interacts, exchanging energy with the gram of carbon or a clock or whatever—she splits like an amoeba. She splits into copies of herself, one for each element in the superposition.

NOVA: And this split is what creates the “many worlds” of his theory?

Byrne: Yes. And wild as it sounds—a person splitting into numerous copies of herself—Hugh Everett’s theory has not been shown to be mathematically incorrect. God knows, people have tried. They have found some mathematical gaps, but you can’t fault his basic mathematical logic, which made a powerful case that every time there is an interaction anywhere in the universe above a certain size, one of the systems splits in order to accommodate all of the elements and the superpositions that are contained in the wave function that describes the observed system. In other words, the basis for having multiple universes emerges from his solution of the measurement problem.”

In other words, on a particle level atoms present possible outcomes and in a way those possibilities continue on whether the human participates or not.  Using the example above if the person looks at the pencil or not, the particle energy around the action still exists.  This is why Everett called it the Many World theory.  On a particle level there are infinite numbers of worlds created every moment which all react in different ways.

This is where the son comes in. Like I said, on the surface Mark has nothing in common with his father.  He is  a front runner for an independent rock band called the Eels.  According to the NOVA program much of Mark’s music is dark, focusing on mental illness, abuse, and death.  To give you an idea one of their most famous songs is called “Novocaine for the Soul”. Apparently much of the darkness in the music came from a lonely childhood with a father obsessed with work and science.  On the program Mark tells the story of a conversation over the dishes he had with his father just before he passed away.  Of this simple chat he says “We joked around a little and I remember thinking that it was the most human, real conversation I’d ever had with him. He even told me a joke.”

Later the next day his father dies, and he is devastated by the missed opportunities.  Eventually Mark tries to put his feelings to music and as he struggles he realizes something about his father.  He learns they had a key similarity:

“I realized that I had been feeling that same thing he must have been feeling all those years when he couldn’t be bothered because he always had some crazy ideas he was trying to sort out in his head. You’re just about to crack the code and the kid wants to play baseball. I get it now. We’re both “idea men” and anything outside of these ideas is a distraction.”

With this understanding Mark begins to learn more about the ideas of his father.  Finally it occurs to him that their lives are the ultimate example of the Many World’s theory.  Two worlds co-existing independently of each other and yet intrinsically dependent on one another.   It’s like the show’s title describes: Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives.  In the end, Mark understood his life better because of his father’s theories.  This to me is fascinating.  How often do we have answers staring at us in the face, yet we dismiss it as ordinary or familial? How often do we discount something because it is different, even offensive, and yet in that other world is the answer to our own happiness?

There are so many examples of parallel worlds, which if understood could enlighten both worlds.  Notice we aren’t talking about combining worlds.  They are inherently separate, but perhaps they could still teach us?  The NOVA program explores the worlds of father vs son, musician vs  scientist, and youth vs. age.  Religion would be another interesting subject for discussion.

Like I said, the science is a bit beyond me, so I hope I have done justice to the program.  If you get a chance, put it on your DVR or watch it on youtube.com . It kind of reminded me of a This American Life piece on television.- excellent and thought provoking. Check out the PBS website on the show for more information. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/manyworlds/.  On a final side note, this program would be great for teachers and homeschoolers who want to learn more about physics.  I know practically nothing and it explained complex concepts in ways even I understood.

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