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Book Review: The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family by Peter Byrne

Review by Tom Siegfried

1:33pm, November 5, 2010
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In histories of quantum physics, Hugh Everett III’s name appears frequently, but without much about the life of the man behind the name. He did not pursue a career in academic physics, opting instead to work as an analyst for secret military projects, and he died young, in 1982 at age 51.

In Everett’s 1957 Ph.D. dissertation, he introduced a radical view of quantum mechanics, the mathematics that governs reality with unfathomable weirdness. Standard quantum math describes multiple possible realities; in any given circumstance one of those possibilities becomes “real” when an observation is made. But Everett believed that all the possibilities exist. An observer “splits” each time an observation is made, he insisted, creating a multiplex of parallel realities corresponding to all the possibilities in the quantum math.

Bizarre, of course, but also plausible enough to persuade many physicists that Everett’s view, later labeled the Many Worlds Interpretation, should be the preferred way of understanding quantum mechanics — a view still widely debated. That debate has been illuminated by Byrne, an investigative reporter. With access to Everett’s personal papers, Byrne has re-created the full story of Everett’s troubled life, frequently with more private details than some readers may care for.

While Byrne probes personal matters (alcoholism, financial and marital issues) insightfully, his grasp on science is shaky; descriptions of mixed strategies in game theory, entropy and various quantum concepts are vague, muddled or misleading. And much of the book consists of long block quotations, regurgitated from various sources without much digestion.

Nevertheless the book as a whole offers a valuable source of primary information about Everett’s life and work, with much material not available elsewhere. With allowances for Byrne’s often acerbic point of view (including unconcealed disdain for several of the 20th century’s most prominent physicists), this book fleshes out an important part of the quantum physics story.

Oxford Univ., 2010, 436 p., $45.

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