Biographical sketch of hugh everett, III. Eugene Shikhovtsev

Catholic University of America in Washington (1950-1953). Chemical engineering


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Catholic University of America in Washington (1950-1953). Chemical engineering.

By the time he graduated from high school, Hugh Everett gave the impression of being a mature, intellectual young man [13] He enrolled in the Catholic University of America in Washington, choosing chemical engineering as a major [14]. He was caught up in the Cold-War mentality of the time, as indicated, for instance, by the fact that after he visited a Spring Fair in Leipzig, East Germany, at age 19, he gave a detailed account of what he saw to an American military officer [15]a common practice at the time. But he was not a “hawk,” which one may deduce from the fact of his friendship with Karen Kruse, a student of philology who, in 1950, along with three friends, founded a Sherlock Holmes society, naming it the "Red Circle Society." The name, taken from one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was chosen at least in part to show defiance against the anticommunist hysteria of the times [18]. (Karen Kruse later married the writer Poul Anderson and lived in San Francisco, becoming a well-known writer herself. Poul Anderson, a physicist, became a great fan of Everett's "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics [16, 17]).

In 1953 Everett received his bachelor's degree magna cum laude [14].

Princeton University (1953-1956). Mathematics & Physics.

Hugh's family was not rich [19, page 9]. His father, by this time a colonel, was the commander of a logistics base, Cameron Station, in nearby Alexandria, VA [6] (Alexandria is a 200-year-old city across the Potomac River, where on Cameron Street a former home of George Washington is preserved, and nearby a church which Washington used to visit [20, 21]). In order to pursue his further education at prestigious Princeton University, Everett needed financial support, and he achieved it, being awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship. [19, page 3] Although he was interested in theoretical physics, it was to the Mathematics Department that he gained admission [19, page1], and his NSF fellowship called for him to work on game theory. It is conceivable that even early in his graduate career, Hugh was thinking about military applications of game theory. But his main focus at the time was on preparing for the general exams [19, page 3] and seeking a way to transfer into the Physics Department. [19, page 6] His roommate that first year at Princeton was from England [19, page 7].

Everett made friends with other graduate students—in particular, Charles W. Misner (in physics, but with a strong mathematical bent), Hale Trotter, and Harvey Arnold. These four remained friends through Everett's three years at Princeton, and the friendship with Misner he cherished for the rest of his life. Trotter told them about news of mathematics, about algebraic topology [19, pages 3-4]. Everett once brought the book by Russian émigré G. Y. Rainich, Mathematics of Relativity [24], and said to his friends: "Look, this was a great idea. Why did he stop there instead of going on to finish the job?" (Misner did go on later) [19, pages 1-2, 4]. (There is another version of this story about Rainich, namely that Peter Bergmann brought Rainich’s work to the attention of John Wheeler and Misner, the latter of whom heroically “in the space of very few months produced a wonderful paper (and thesis)” [24a, page 268].) With Trotter and Misner Everett discussed the idea “that elementary particles would be obviously the way different knots would be knotted in multiple-connected space and we went over there and said all we've got to know is the classification of knots and we'll have the answer.” Everett pursued that idea for some time, but said later that getting ready for the general exams (which he actually took in physics near the end of his second year of study) took time away from his theoretical work.

Despite his commitment to game theory and the Math Department, Everett drifted toward physics. In his Princeton Alumni file the list of courses he took in his first term, fall 1953, includes Electricity and Magnetism with George Reynolds and Introductory Quantum Mechanics with Robert Dicke, with the quantum mechanics course continuing into his second term, spring 1954. (In the fall, he also took an Algebra seminar with Emil Artin [25].)

Everett's summer vacation in 1954 coincided with the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Congress, which were televised and widely watched. Misner says that he spent a great deal of time watching the hearings. Everett may have spent some time doing the same thing, but apparently wasn't caught up in them the way Misner was. He (Everett) worked hard that summer on military applications of recursive games. [19, page 2].

In his second year at Princeton, beginning in September 1954, Everett was admitted to the Physics Department, with Frank Shoemaker as his faculty advisor [26]. One subject that he studied for the whole year was Methods of Mathematical Physics with Eugene Wigner. [25]. (Indeed there is no record of his having enrolled in any other course.) In the second term of that year, spring 1955, Niels Bohr attended a seminar in Princeton, and the local paper published a photo of the 68-year-old Nobel Laureate prior to the seminar surrounded by Misner, Trotter, Everett and David Harrison [27]. In the picture Everett looks thin, with an eagle profile, a cigarette in his hand [27a]. (Everett was probably then already a chain smoker. Relatives and others say that he smoked up to three packs of cigarettes per day, a habit that may have been ultimately fatal for both him and, through second-hand smoke, his wife. [28, 29]).

Observer(s) split(s) (1954)

The young Princetonian geniuses very likely get acquainted with Bohr’s assistant Aage Petersen, who pursued an interest in quantum mechanics with religious zeal [19, page 10]. At one party in the Graduate College, after a good bit of sherry, Petersen steered a discussion with Everett and Misner to paradoxes of quantum mechanics. Misner had not yet thought deeply about these paradoxes, but Everett already had. [19, pages 1, 4]. The 24-year-old Everett, obviously, was already a crackerjack thinker, a feature mentioned by all who knew him. He, probably not realizing himself the true scale of his impromptu remark, offered a conceptual scheme in which the inconsistencies (the so-called paradoxes) were removed. That was the idea that the next year would yield a major piece of work, finished even before his dissertation, about the basis of quantum mechanics and would later immortalize his name.

Despite the shift to physics, Everett continued to work in mathematics. In December 1954 (half way through his second graduate year), he delivered a lecture on military applications of game theory in Washington, DC. His Christmas arrival at his parents that year, together with his friend Arnold, was worthy of attention as a local news item [30] (Evidently “parents” meant his father and stepmother Sara T. [4]). (Incidentally, Hugh's father, Colonel Everett, was transferred at this time from Alexandria to the Military District of Washington, DC as the head of supply and logistics. Later he rose to become the chief of staff [6, 8]).

For some months after that Christmas vacation, Everett buckled down to get ready for the general exams, which he passed in the spring. Not until the summer of 1955 did he begin to write up his ideas on quantum mechanics. The resulting 137-page manuscript was typed by Nancy Gore (February 13, 1930–November 11, 1998 [28]), whom Everett married a year later. [19, page 6; 24]. Someone advised Everett that if he wanted to finish his dissertation more quickly, he should transfer to John Wheeler as an advisor. Wheeler, who had been a postdoc with Niels Bohr in the 1930s and had collaborated with Bohr on the 1939 theory of fission, had served as a principal scientist in the Manhattan Project [19, page 2]. Everett probably approached Wheeler around the end of 1954 (the middle of his second year at Princeton). He (Everett) later recalled that before writing the long manuscript he went with the idea to Wheeler and asked, “Hey, how about this, is this the thing to do?" [19, pages 2-3] In the "Calendar of Events", composed by Everett’s widow in 1990, the time of writing the dissertation for Wheeler is given as winter 1954-55 [2]. This is undoubtedly in error. The archives show that in both terms of Everett's third year (1955-56), he, under Wheeler's guidance, worked on a dissertation referred to in the fall as Correlation Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and in the spring simply as Quantum Mechanics) [25]. The formal submission of the dissertation did not occur until spring 1957 [37] and the famous paper based on it was published in July 1957. [45]

In September, 1955 (the beginning of Everett's third year at Princeton) he presented two small papers to Wheeler. (In Everett's archives, in the same folder with these two, there is stored a third paper, just four pages in length, that may have been written earlier. This third paper deals with objective vs. subjective probabilities. In it, he proves the inconsistency of the concept of objective probability and chooses as the most fruitful way to consistency an acceptance of the concept of hidden variables. The marginal remarks in this paper probably belong to Shoemaker, because the handwriting is different from the usual handwriting of Wheeler [31]). In one of the September papers submitted to Wheeler, Everett introduces a new concept—the correlation of values X and Y (not to be confused with a coefficient of correlation), based on the expectation of change of the quantity of Shannon information about X depending on information about value Y. The paper concludes with a formula for the correlation of observable values X and Y, described by a wave function [32].

In the second of these two papers, this one nine pages in length, the concept of “Everettism” appears for the first time. Everett writes about splitting of the observer at each measurement (Wheeler wrote in the margin: "Split? Better words needed."), and about a branching "life tree," and admits that this beautiful physics has philosophical implications that must be addressed. In his summary, Everett illustrates the concept by an image of splitting an "intelligent amoeba with a good memory" (Wheeler wrote in the margin: "This analogy seems to me quite capable of misleading readers in what is a very subtle point. Suggest omission.") [33].

On September 21, 1955 Wheeler wrote Everett a note, judging both papers as important works. The first one, on correlation, he is ready to send somewhere for publication, but as to the second one, “Probability in Wave Mechanics,” he say he is "frankly bashful about showing it to Bohr in its present form" since it can be “subject to mystical misinterpretations by too many unskilled readers” [34]. So, it seems that Everett's theory was too advanced for its time. (Everett received his master's degree that year, probably before submission of these papers to Wheeler. At that time in physics at Princeton, passing the general exams was all that was required for the M. A. degree. Only the Ph.D. required research accomplishment.)

Everett's main 137-page work, “The Theory of the Universal Wave Function” [35], is dated January 1956. (It was reprinted in a 1973 collection [36]). Chapter II of this work was taken from his unpublished article on correlation. Everett recalled later that Wheeler hurried him to a dissertation defense before his third year ended in the spring of 1956, although he (Everett) would have preferred delay because leaving the University might have meant being drafted into the military [19, page 6] (the Korean War had recently ended, and being drafted was still a possibility). Everett later thanked Bohr, H. J. Groenewald, Petersen, A. Stern, and L. Rosenfeld for criticism [37]. But something did delay his defense. Perhaps it was Wheeler's leaving to accept a Lorentz Professorship at Leiden University [38] for the period January to September 1956 [24a, page 248]. In any case, his startlingly original and important work on quantum mechanics caused much less of a stir than it should have, and Everett turned toward a new career full of military secrets.

After Princeton. Institute for Defense Analyses. Marriage. (1956)

Everett left Princeton in April 1956, returning in September to take his final examination for the Ph.D. degree [2] (the general examination had been graded "Good;" the final examination was graded "Very Good" [25]). Around this time he was among a select group of scientists invited to form a scientific core [13] of the Pentagon Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG) under the auspices of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA)—a civilian organization that could hire outstanding scientists and carry out defense work without the restricted salary levels of government employment [39]. It is likely that Wheeler had a role in securing the invitation for Everett, which he (Everett) accepted [38].

In October 1956 Everett received orientation on "special weapons" (presumably nuclear weapons, to judge by the handsome certificate that he received with a mushroom cloud drawn in the center) by attending an Advanced Class at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico [40, 41]. There he acquired a familiarity with, and a life-long love for, computer modeling. When he directed the department of physical and mathematical sciences of WSEG, beginning in 1957, he gained a reputation as an advocate of ever more powerful computers, which took up ever more space. [13, 14]. IDA had offices in Alexandria [42], in the so-called “Paperclip” building [1a]. Until August 1957, Everett and his new wife lived in nearby Arlington, where the Pentagon [43] is located. For a little while in the spring of 1957 Everett had to tear himself away from problems of national security in order to complete his academic career.

Doctoral dissertation and first publication of his formulation of quantum mechanics (1957)

On March 1, 1957, Everett submitted his 36-page doctoral dissertation, “On the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics”, in a footnote to which he writes that it would be too much to hope that the revised wording avoids every misunderstanding or ambiguity [37]. Bryce DeWitt later published [44] the background of how Wheeler sat down with Everett and told him precisely what to omit from the manuscript of 1956. So when the article "'Relative State' Formulation of Quantum Mechanics" [45] was published, there was published with it an assessment by Wheeler [46]. This article of Everett's differed from his 1957 dissertation only by minor stylistic changes. In comparison with the 1956 paper, however, it is practically new text (no more than 20-30 percent of the texts coincide and the sequence of parts differs). Fortunately, DeWitt, known for his refined courtesy, found time to shed additional light on this history. He has stated that Everett himself re-wrote the "large" thesis (Urwerk) into a "small" one based on Wheeler's instructions. Wheeler, according to DeWitt, was motivated in part by his wish not to spoil his relations with Bohr [38].

John Wheeler, in his autobiography [24a, copy kindly provided by Kenneth Ford on behalf of John Wheeler], provides more evidence about this story. On pp. 268-271, Wheeler recalls that he could sense the depth of Everett's dissertation (the draft version of January 1956, the version that DeWitt later called the Urwerk), yet “found the draft barely comprehensible. I knew that if I had that much trouble with it, other faculty members on his committee would have even more trouble. They not only would find it incomprehensible; they might find it without merit. So Hugh and I worked long hours at night in my office to revise the draft. Even after that effort, I decided the thesis needed a companion piece, which I prepared for publication with his paper. My real intent was to make his thesis more digestible to his other committee members”. [24a, p. 268] (This interaction with Everett came just after Wheeler's extremely productive period, 1954-56, when he achieved some of his most important results, including the ideas of geons—which were never accepted by Einstein—and of quantum foam. [24a, pp. 237-263])

On March 10, 1957, Everett and Wheeler started to dispatch preprints of their articles, and during the next two days Everett participated in a large conference on game theory at Princeton [22]. In a copy of their mailing list it is marked that answers came from Petersen, Groenewald, and Norbert Wiener [47]. (In the cover letter it is mentioned that the articles are intended for publication in Reviews of Modern Physics as part of the Proceedings of "the recent Chapel Hill Conference." That conference, on the subject of "The Role of Gravitation in Modern Physics," was held at the beginning of March at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Among the conference participants was Richard Feynman [48], but, according to the conference organizer, Cecile DeWitt-Morette, Everett did not attend [49].)

On April 15 1957, Everett formally presented his dissertation for defense. Wheeler and his faculty colleague V. Bargmann wrote in their assessment that Everett's formulation of the problem and his solution were almost completely original, and suggested that the thesis "may be a significant contribution to our understanding of the foundations of quantum theory." Accordingly, they recommended acceptance of the dissertation [50]. The oral examination took place on April 23. The principal examiners—Wheeler, Bargmann, H. W. Wyld, and R. H. Dicke—concluded: "The candidate passed a very good examination. He dealt with a very difficult subject and defended his conclusions firmly, clearly, and logically. He shows marked mathematical ability, keenness in logic analyses, and a high ability to express himself well." [51].
Bryce DeWitt letter (1957)

Not long after the defense, Wheeler received from Bryce DeWitt, who was the editor of the proceedings of the Chapel Hill conference, an eight-page review of Everett's paper [52]. (DeWitt, incidentally, did not know that Everett's paper was a Ph.D. thesis.) Wheeler sent the review to Everett, who then provided a four-page response to DeWitt [43]. DeWitt wrote that Everett’s work had rather a more philosophical than a physical character, which was acceptable, since “physicists themselves are obliged to be their own epistemologists.” He astutely surmised that there was not simply a verbal but also a more substantive parallelism between Everett’s “relative state” and Einstein's “relativity.” Everett, in his paper, treated the external observer in the way that Einstein had done with a privileged inertial frame. However, although agreeing with Everett's physics and his logic (in particular, with Everett's assertion that probability theory and measure theory are mathematically equivalent), DeWitt decidedly disagreed with the epistemological conclusions that Everett reached. DeWitt, based on his own experience, rejected the reality of the world branching. Everett liked DeWitt’s analysis so much that he sent parts of it to others with whom he was corresponding.

Everett, in his response to DeWitt, willingly engaged in discussion about what should be understood as a valid theory in general, but his main effort was given to convincing DeWitt that, according to the proposed concept, each parallel observer would not feel branching. Instead, he argued, the image of a constantly branching world represents not an abstract formalism but an isomorphic description of reality. Prior to publication, Everett was able to add these explanations in a footnote to the fifth part of his article (by way of analogy, he cited Newton's mechanics confirming Copernican theory just by proving that Earth's inhabitants should not feel Earth's motion). Everett's article and the companion contribution by Wheeler appeared in the July 1957 issue of Reviews of Modern Physics [45, 46] (an issue that also contained a paper by Misner based on his thesis [24a, page 268]).

And then—nothing. Although Wheeler once mentioned Everett in a sequence with Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein [46], the scientific world preferred not to notice the article by Everett, which Max Jammer in the 1970s named “one of the best kept secrets in this century” [53]. This silence of non-recognition seriously wounded Everett for a long time. Despite his intellectual independence even from the most authoritative judgments of others, he was emotionally rather sensitive to them, as one can infer from his correspondence [54] and in the recollections of the people who knew him [38, 55].

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