Friday, March 12, 2010

The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett

We recently watched the PBS NOVA show Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives about the late physicist Hugh Everett. In 1957, Everett came up with a scenario that would eliminate the Schrödinger's cat -- which said that light didn't take shape as wave or particle until someone was observing it. He called his theory "many worlds," and it proposed the idea that where two states are possible, each splits off into its own universe. Science fiction, especially Star Trek, later adopted the idea for stories involving parallel universes. But at the time, Everett's theory was dismissed by the big guns of physics, like Niels Bohr. Rejected, Everett left academia and went to work for private firms, never developing his theory any further.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives explores the physics of Hugh Everett through his son Mark Oliver Everett. Mark Everett, also known as "E," is a member of the indie rock band EELS and author of Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Mark grew up with his father but had very little contact with him. As an adult, he decides to investigate his father's life and work, meeting with physicists who are trying to further his theories, and visiting with his old colleagues and friends at Princeton and elsewhere. He also uncovers boxes of papers taken from his father's home after the death of his sister and mother and turns them over to his father's biographer. As he says in the documentary, he has become the ambassador from the Everett family to the world.

I really love the NOVA videos we have watched so far this school year, because they both bring in a human perspective and make the most of today's video effects to illustrate difficult physics concepts. This one is no exception, and it has the added plus of being told from the point of view of someone who, like us, has no scientific background. The video is only an hour long and well worth borrowing from your library or adding to your physics teaching materials. There is, as always, clips and lots of supplementary material at the PBS website. My only complaint is that the classroom "activity" doesn't include an actual double-slit experiment, but used a computer simulation instead.