Book: The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett

By July 6, 2010

The intersection of science and national security in the 20th century produced many peculiar phenomena, some of which are illuminated in a new biography of physicist Hugh Everett III (1930-1982).

Everett is best known, if at all, as the originator of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Roughly, this theory holds that whenever a quantum state is measured, every possible outcome of the measurement is realized in a different universe, which somehow means that the world is constantly branching out into a multiplicity of separate, parallel worlds.

“Many prominent physicists, including [Richard] Feynman, thought many worlds was a ludicrous idea,” notes Peter Byrne, the author of the new Everett biography.  But others were startled and impressed by its mathematical and conceptual coherence.  (The notion of parallel universes also became a staple of science fiction writing.)

Having made his controversial mark in physics, Everett went on to perform nuclear war planning for the top secret Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, a sort of Pentagon think tank which generated analysis for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“When Everett joined WSEG in 1956, it was analyzing the cost-benefits of global and limited nuclear warfare,” writes Mr. Byrne. “Ongoing studies examined nuclear blast and fallout kill ratios; the impact of jamming the electronics of guided missiles and airplanes; and the disturbing problem of the ‘nuclear blackout,’ i.e. massive electrical disturbances unleashed by nuclear bombs exploded high in the atmosphere.”  The WSEG’s “Report 50,” portions of which have recently been declassified along with other WSEG records, “became a basic source document” for nuclear war planning.

Everett apparently wrote the software for the first Single Integrated Operating Plan (SIOP), the U.S. nuclear warfighting plan.  He also designed the first “relational database” software, an early word-processing program, and more.

The new biography of Hugh Everett never veers off into hagiography, a temptation that might have been easy to resist since Everett had more than his fair share of shortcomings.  But investigative reporter Peter Byrne has produced a thoughtful account of an original figure and his diverse contributions to a momentous period in the history of science and national security.  One imagines that there are still many other such stories waiting to be told.

See “The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III” by Peter Byrne, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Categories: Secrecy