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Last Updated: Monday, 26 November 2007, 12:55 GMT
The rock star and the quantum mechanic
By Andrew Thompson

Mark Oliver Everett (BBC)
The quest has helped Mark understand his father better

This December sees the release of the feature film The Golden Compass based on Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. What many of the cinema-goers will not know is that Pullman's clever use of parallel universes relies heavily on the work of an American quantum physicist, Hugh Everett III.

In 1957, this young and brilliant physicist published a paper which used some heavy duty mathematics to predict the existence of parallel universes.

Although the concept of parallel universes seeped into popular culture, it was considered too way-out for mainstream physicists; and for many years, it remained in the scientific wilderness.

Now, 50 years on, Hugh Everett's son has travelled across America for a BBC Four documentary to find out more about his father's theory, and why it has now been accepted by many physicists as the work of a scientific genius.

He is the first to admit that he can barely add up a restaurant tip and knows virtually nothing about quantum physics
Mark Oliver Everett's own career path couldn't have been more different from that of his father.

Mark Everett is the creative force behind the successful American cult rock band Eels. He is the first to admit that he can barely add up a restaurant tip and knows virtually nothing about quantum physics.

The splitting universe

But the main reason Mark decided to participate in the documentary was that he has always felt estranged from his father, and this would be an opportunity to understand his father better.

Along the way, Mark meets many of his father's old colleagues and also younger physicists who have been inspired by Hugh Everett's work.

Mark Oliver Everett (BBC)
The subject matter of parallel universes is hard to grasp
Mark receives a crash course in the history of quantum mechanics and also why Hugh's theory was so revolutionary. In his key paper, Hugh Everett argued that at the quantum level the universe is constantly splitting; and every time it splits a new universe is born.

It sounds bizarre to the layman but for Professor Max Tegmark, physicist at MIT, it makes good sense. In the BBC documentary he enthuses to Mark Everett: "In my personal opinion, your dad's theory is one of the most important discoveries of all time in science; and I can't emphasise that enough - how important I think it is.

"And I would put it right up there with Einstein's relativity theory, Newton's theory of gravity. And I think 50 years from now, he is going to be even more famous than he is now, when more experiments have been confirmed that this seems to be the way that the world works."

But just as importantly, Mark begins to understand why he was so estranged from his father. And it is all to do with scientific egos.

Voice from the past

Essentially, Hugh attempted to upstage the godfather of quantum physics, Niels Bohr. Bohr was the author of the established theory of the time (known as the Copenhagen Interpretation) and refused to accept the work of Hugh Everett.

This was a devastating blow to Hugh Everett who left academia at the time and was always upset by the fact that his scientific theory was not taken more seriously until shortly before his early death in 1982.

Mark Oliver Everett (BBC)
Mark helped the BBC search through his father's archives
One of the highlights of the documentary is the discovery of some audio tapes by Mark Everett. They are the only known voice recording of his father (there is no known film footage) and Hugh Everett talks about how he first came up with his theory as a young student at Princeton.

The tapes were believed lost so they are an important finding for the history of science. For Mark it was also the personal opportunity to hear his father's voice after a 25-year void.

Hugh Everett III died of a heart attack in his home in 1982. It was Mark who found the body.

"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."

By participating in the documentary, Mark has finally made peace with his father.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives is broadcast on BBC Four on Monday, 26 November, 2007, at 2100 GMT

SEE ALSO
Quantum computing
13 Nov 07 |  Technology
Universe 'child of previous one'
05 May 06 |  Science/Nature

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