Monday, 23 November 2009

What Everett REALLY said... and what he didn't

Somebody once told me that the average child today (meaning the "today" of maybe twenty years ago) knows more about medicine than the average physician of the 17th century. I am not sure that is entirely true (and even less so today "today", with rampant functional illiteracy); but undoubtedly something similar could be said about the common knowledge of physics today.

Of course I am not talking about solid technical knowledge; but certainly the terms "quantum", "multiverse" and "parallel" (as in: universes) seem to be on everyone's lips lately.
(I am surprised there aren't any ads for quantum detergents, quantum blenders, parallel-universe stain removers that shift your stains into an alternate reality... It's probably just a matter of time.)

And it's no wonder. Quantum physics really has revolutionised the "mainstream" view about the nature of time-space - even before its actual findings could be properly verified. And one of its most revolutionary concepts is the "Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics", as it was called by its direct intellectual progenitor, Hugh Everett, III.

Published in 1957, in Nature (see the cover below), it has spawned and fuelled countless speculations and science fiction scenarios - but also inklings of new paths in our perception of the universe and of our interaction with all there is.

If you are interested in Everett's actual theory, you're in for a treat. Here is a fascinating collection of original documents (compiled by the journalist and Everett's biographer, Peter Byrne), including Everett's dissertation, so you can read it for yourself. Or you can read the more accessible but no less important "Amoeba Metaphor". 

(By the way, you can also read about the scientist's son and his "quest" for his distant father. And here is a veritable text fest, courtesy of Nature and its various authors, commenting on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Everett's seminal article.)

However, many - probably most - of the people who now speak of "parallel universes" with such ease and apparent familiarity, never read a word of what Everett actually wrote.

So, what is the reason for the mass appeal of this theory? 
The perceived end of a one and only, finite "fate", of course. 

The glimpse of endless possibilities. 
The hope that what was not but could have been - is. All we have to do is observe it.

That's the underlying assumption. (And how valid - or simply compelling, on a human level - this assumption is, we'll see at the end of this post.)

But here's the catch: "observation" seems to imply consciousness - our consciousness. And Everett, apparently, never said anything about the role of human consciousness. He simply wasn't interested in it.

This may sound bizarre, considering that "observing" sounds like an action of human (or human-like) consciousness.
Here's what Byrne says about it:

Everett, like all good physicists, did not give theories of consciousness any magical powers in quantum mechanics. Because of the intractability of the measurement problem and several other similar paradoxes in quantum mechanics, some people, especially philosophers, have been attracted to the idea that human consciousness collapses the wave function. That human consciousness is the major actor in the universe, and that without human consciousness, the universe would not exist. Physicists like Everett who are materialist and realist thought that was bunk. They think human consciousness is a quantum-mechanical system like any other quantum-mechanical system.
This may be a very good description of what the author perceives to be the predominant state of mind among physicists... with one major flaw.

Let's rewind the passage:

Everett, like all good physicists, did not give theories of consciousness any magical powers in quantum mechanics.


Here is what one physicist whose fame vastly surpasses Everett's replied to a journalist's question about the role of consciousness in the physical universe:

Q: “Do you think that consciousness can be explained in terms of matter?”
A: “No, I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.

Thus spoke Max Planck, the actual father of quantum mechanics.

Naturally, fame does not necessarily imply quality - but in Planck's case, any doubt about his ability as a physicist would be ridiculous to the point of outrage - worse, to the point of madness.

It's just one example, but it is an example worth hundreds of minor names. 
And among our contemporary physicists Michio Kaku, for example, doesn't sound opposed to the concept of consciousness as an intervening factor, either. Here's what Kaku says, in this must-read interview:
"Consciousness is one of the great problems facing science. Most scientists cannot even define it, let alone explain it."
Is it possible that Everett really was all that oblivious to the depth and implications of this question?

Knowing a few physicists as I do, I'll venture an opinion: Yes, it is possible. 

But that still doesn't necessarily mean that he - he, specifically - was.

Assuming Everett discussed this concept with his family (I mean, in depth), then the most eloquent, revealing - and poignant - "circumstantial" evidence of his conception is to be found in the farewell note that his daughter, Elizabeth, left behind when she committed suicide, in 1982:

"I am going to join dad in a parallel world," she wrote.


Lynx said...

"I am surprised there aren't any ads for quantum detergents, quantum blenders, parallel-universe stain removers... It's probably just a matter of time."

Tsk, tsk.... if you ever did any washing by yourself you would know there already IS a "quantum" dishwasher detergent. :)

Myosotis said...

You mean, maybe if I had a DISHWASHER I would know it...

But why would I bother if certain people around me are so much better at teleporting stains into invisible dimensions?