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The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0199552276
ISBN-10: 0199552274
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Editorial Reviews


"In this biography, Peter Byrne bravely explores both the life and the science of Hugh Everett, the brilliant creator of the 'many worlds' concept who burned himself out at an early age. As Byrne makes clear, Everett's startling achievements in physics stood against his startling deficiencies as a husband and father."--Kenneth W. Ford, retired director, American Institute of Physics
"This book has the potential to become the definitive biography of one of the finest minds of the twentieth century." --David Deutsch FRS, Oxford University
"In this extraordinarily personal biography, Peter Byrne masterfully conveys the life, struggles, achievements, and failures of this fascinating man, whose insights in physics created a new understanding of quantum mechanics, whose secret work helped usher us through the Cold War, and whose inner battles led to his own destruction." --A. Garrett Lisi, physicist, author of An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything"
"We are grateful to Peter Byrne for this remarkable and remarkably sad story of the life and science of Hugh Everett III. Gifted, but late-to-be-recognized, Everett, while still in his twenties, proposed a new, now somewhat fashionable, interpretation of the quantum theory--the often rediscovered and often misinterpreted, so called, many worlds theory. Byrne gives a lucid and accessible account of many aspects of what has been an extraordinarily puzzling question that has bedeviled the quantum theory since its origin. And he does this with a warts and all reconstruction of Everett's life. An impressive achievement."--Leon N. Cooper, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1972
"Peter Byrne has the skills of a seasoned journalist: an eye for a story, a knack for turning up improbable interviews and previously undiscovered manuscripts, and a thoroughly engaging style. His target here is inherently interesting, and the resulting story is a remarkable achievement." --Jeff Barrett, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science, University of California, Irvine
"This is an exciting book about a man who was ahead of his time by decades, although he did no more than logically apply a well-established theory against all prejudice. Peter Byrne has done an excellent job in unearthing documents, most of them unknown, about the history of Everett's ideas, their reception by the leading physicists from 1957 until today, and the consequences this had for Everett's life." --H. Dieter Zeh, University of Heidelberg

About the Author

Peter Byrne is an investigative reporter and science writer based in northern California. He has written for Scientific American, Mother Jones,, SF Weekly, North Bay Bohemian, and many other magazines and newsweeklies. He has received national recognition for his investigative reporting, including from Investigative Editors & Reporters and Project Censored. He a member of the Foundational Questions Institute, which has supported this book with a large grant. He has made presentations on Everett at University of Oxford, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and University of California, Irvine. He consulted on (and appeared in) the BBC4 production about Everett, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives. He is curating the Everett papers.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (June 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199552274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199552276
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.2 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,151,622 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 37 people found the following review helpful By John K. Clark on August 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've just finished this book and its one of the most enjoyable things I've read in a long time. Being a staple of science fiction and the only interpretation of quantum mechanics to enter the popular imagination it's a little surprising that "The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett" by Peter Byrne is the first biography of the originator of that amazing idea. Everett certainly had an interesting life, he was a libertarian and a libertine, became a cold warrior who with his top secret clearance was comfortable with the idea of megadeath, became wealthy by started one of the first successful software companies until alcoholism drove him and his company into the ground. Everett died of heart failure in 1982 at the age of 51, he was legally drunk at the time. He requested that his body be cremated and his ashes thrown into the garbage. And so he was.

Byrne had an advantage other potential biographers did not, the cooperation of his son Mark, a successful rock musician and composer whose music has been featured in such big budget movies as American Beauty, Hellboy, Yes Man, all three of the Shrek movies and many others. Mark gave Byrne full access to his garage which was full of his father's papers that nobody had looked at in decades.

Everett was an atheist all his life, after his death Paul Davies, who got 1,000,000 pounds for winning the Templeton religion prize, said that if true Many Worlds destroyed the anthropic argument for the existence of God. Everett would have been delighted. Nevertheless Everett ended up going to Catholic University of America near Washington DC. Although Byrne doesn't tell us exactly what was in it, Everett as a freshman devised a logical proof against the existence of God.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By J. Jenkins on June 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What a fantastic amount of research has gone into this interesting book. Peter Byrne is a science journalist and his depth of understanding is as impressive as his to-the-point writing style. Physics fans will know Everett as the one who came up with the 'many worlds' interpretation of quantum mechanics, that is, the idea that each time a measurement is made the universe splits into an infinity of copies depending on what the result is. Up till now I had always thought the idea repulsive for occam's razor reasons, but this book, through exhaustive discussion of the idea, almost has me convinced it is a valid explanation. Certainly to this day there is no conclusive argument against Everett's thesis in theoretical physics and a surprising number of physicists believe in it.

What makes this biography absolutely impossible to put down is the life of the man. Briefly he completed his thesis on many worlds in Princeton as a young man and was promptly hired by US defence to come up with algorithms and mathematical calculations relating to nuclear war, kind of like Oppenheimer, but with a far more dramatic result. The author repeats the irony or appropriateness, of the many worlds theorist coming up with different scenarios of complete nuclear war between the US and Russia, some of which destroy both countries, some of which lead to a 'win' for the US, etc. Many simulations involved destroying China too, to punish it or teach it a lesson. In addition he was an alcoholic and a terrible father and husband with multiple affairs, and died at an early age from a heart attack. Both children suffered but his son Mark Everett went on to become a famous indie songwriter with the Eels. He is the one who allowed the writer access to all the papers from his father.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Paul Taylor on November 5, 2011
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I was a physicist doing a PhD in the early 70's when Hugh Everett's Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory was coming into vogue. What a monumental effort Peter Byrne has made in pulling this book together. It was a bit hard to follow its pattern at first, but I got into the rhythm of oscillating between Everett's many worlds quantum theory, his family, and his career with cold war calculations, along with many interesting footnotes.

Its very illuminating and an important work for the general public, with its penetration of the cold war thinking and the dance with annihilation. Its also important for scientists and philosophers, not the least those who are continuing on the many worlds trail Everett started down, but who may have no awareness of his character or connections with the cold war.

Great work.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 16, 2012
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I have subscribed to the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics since I was a physics graduate student in the 80s. This book does an excellent job discussing the philosophy of quantum mechanics and the importance of Everett's contribution, without using any mathematics at all. A lot of time, effort, and careful scholarship went into the physics and philosophy in this book. After I finished the book, I pulled up a couple of research papers by David Deutsch (a leading expert on quantum computing and today one of the leading promoters of Everett's interpretation of quantum mechanics) I had downloaded a few years ago (probably after reading his book "the Fabric of Reality") and this time I understood them!

The book also evokes the era of the Cold War. Everett's work in nuclear war simulations reminded me what it was like to grow up in the 60s and 70s, when the United States and Soviet Union had forces sufficient to destroy each other on a hair trigger. It evokes the era on an office and social level, as well. In some respects the story is a little bit like the TV show "Mad Men" with quantum physics and nuclear weapons.

There is a compelling personal story that in many ways is rather dark. As a fan of Everett's theory, I have always been curious about the man. He left academic physics research to do computer simulations for the military after he finished the Princeton PhD thesis containing his interpretation of quantum mechanics, so he was something of a mystery to other physicists. His personal story gives me some perspective on my own life and people I know.

I also highly recommend the BBC documentary "Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives" (distributed by the PBS NOVA series in the US), which focuses on his son Mark, a successful musician, trying to understand the father he never really knew years after he was gone.
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