The Untold Story of Hugh Everett: The Brilliant Mind Behind the Multiverse Theory

By the 1940s, Einstein, who was living in the United States at the time, had become a world icon and had outgrown the scientific community. In 1942, a 12-year-old American boy wrote a letter to Einstein claiming that he had solved a physics problem. Einstein actually wrote to the boy named Hugh Everett III seriously to explain: “There are no irresistible forces and immovable objects in this world.”

It is difficult to estimate the impact of the reply from Einstein on Everett, who was a teenager at the time, but it is certain that Everett showed extraordinary mathematical talent in college, and after graduating from college, he won a scholarship to enter Princeton University for further education. He initially chose the mathematics department, and then transferred to the physics department, following the famous physicist John Wheeler to study quantum mechanics.

It was during his research at Princeton University that Everett thought deeply about the nature of the “wave function” in quantum mechanics, which is puzzling. Why are the laws in the microscopic world so different from those in the macroscopic world? Why can people only explain the behavior of microscopic particles in a probabilistic way? Is the so-called wave function describing the behavior of particles a mathematical abstraction or a physical reality? It can be said that these questions have not yet been clearly answered. In his research, Everett came up with the famous “multiverse explanation” of quantum mechanics. He believes that the so-called wave function does not collapse due to human measurement, but will “split” into a new universe with measurement.

This new understanding of quantum mechanics was astonishing at the time, but his mentor, John Wheeler, praised it when he first saw the results. He not only supported Everett, who was only 27 at the time, as the title of his doctoral dissertation, but also fully supported him to edit the paper and publish it in one of the most influential journals in physics, the Modern Physical Review.

For a young physicist, it is hard to imagine a more optimistic start to a career, but the subsequent development has not been as smooth as imagined. The paper published in the Modern Physical Review, despite the disconcerting deletion of the word “split” at the suggestion of the editor, has still received a lukewarm response in academia. It is widely regarded as whimsical and not serious academic theory at all. When Everett met the master of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, in 1959, he was full of hope that the other party would accept his theory. But Bohr already had his own interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was the so-called “Copenhagen interpretation” that was considered orthodox by the academic community at the time. Naturally, he would not show much interest in this new explanation. And his mentor Wheeler quickly lost interest in the multiverse theory.

As soon as the so-called “multiverse theory” was born, it was abandoned by the academic community. The battered Everett did not stay in the academic community to continue to develop, but instead entered the military-industrial field where he could use his mathematical expertise for more practical research work. Throughout his life, Everett did not seem to recover from the blow of being treated coldly by the academic community.

For the rest of his life, Mr. Everett seems to have lived in despair and depression. His poor lifestyle, which took a toll on his health by constantly smoking and drinking, eventually led to his death in 1982 from a heart attack. “My father never told me anything about his theories,” his son recalled. “He lived in his own parallel world.”

It is still difficult to give a fair evaluation to Everett’s “multiverse theory”. This theory has not been fully accepted by the physics community. But it is undeniable that with the development of science, after Everett’s death, the “multiverse theory” has received more and more attention from physicists. Not only in the microscopic field, but also in cosmology research, different versions of the multiverse theory have emerged. In a 2007 article in Scientific American magazine, Everett was hailed as “one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.”

And John Wheeler’s attitude toward the multiverse theory has changed again. In 2001, in the centennial paper on quantum mechanics that Wheeler co-authored, he regarded the multiverse theory as the best explanation of quantum mechanics. Later, in a 2006 interview, Wheeler, who is 95 years old, recalled Everett: “Everett was very frustrated and maybe a little indignant that his theory was ignored. I wish I could have stuck with him on this research. The questions he asked were very important.”
A scientist who makes no scientific discoveries is a failure, but if he is too ahead of the times, the theory he proposes cannot be understood and recognized by the people around him, which often brings bad luck to his life.

The life of a person is inevitably insignificant compared to the grandeur of history. Scientists and the theories they adhere to and pursue often have their own different fates. If we can recognize this, perhaps we can understand and tolerate more about our own lives or those of others.