Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives

PBS Airdate: October 21, 2008
Go to the companion Web site

MARK OLIVER EVERETT (Musician, Eels/Son of Hugh Everett): That's my train. I've got to go: on to the next fantastic voyage into my father's brain.

NARRATOR: A scientific rebel.

MAX TEGMARK (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): In my personal opinion, your dad's theory is one of the most important discoveries of all time in science.

DON REISLER (Physicist): I thought it was the work of a raving lunatic.

NARRATOR: A rock star.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I'm not a physics genius. I can't even open an umbrella.

NARRATOR: Father and son lived side by side, yet worlds apart.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: He's really a complete mystery as a person.

NARRATOR: One man plumbs the depths of the bizarre theory of parallel universes...

DAVID DEUTSCH (Quantum Mechanics Expert): ...very large numbers of versions of you that really exist.


See if you can make me understand quantum physics.

Is this laser going to blow my eyes out?

NARRATOR: understand the father he never really knew.

MAX TEGMARK: Where do you want to start?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: A treasure trove here.

DON REISLER: Tapes! Yeah, who knows what's on there, man. That's going to be amazing.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: No one took him seriously.

This is getting weird, because I know what that means now. What's happening to me?

NARRATOR: Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, right now on NOVA.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the following:

Well, it might surprise a lot of people that ExxonMobil would be interested in lithium ion battery technology applied to hybrid electric vehicles. Our new battery separator film is a true breakthrough that's going to enable the deployment of more hybrid vehicles, faster. This means a tremendous reduction in greenhouse gases, the equivalent of removing millions of cars from the road. I think this is the most important project that I've worked on in my career.

And David H. Koch. And...

Discover new knowledge: HHMI.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Hello. Nice to see you.

NARRATOR: Mark Oliver Everett, known to his friends as E, is the creative force behind the Eels, an alternative rock band...

MARK OLIVER EVERETT (Singing): there's nothing that i wanna do

NARRATOR: ...whose songs have earned a shelf full of music awards and even popped up in the Shrek movies.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT (Singing): trouble with dreams is they don't come true
and when they do they can't catch up to you

NARRATOR: But many of Mark's fans don't know that his father, Hugh Everett, is also a cult figure—in the world of physics—for pioneering the strange theory of parallel universes.

Hugh Everett proposed a multitude of universes, each a home to an alternate reality, including alternate versions of you and me. It may sound crazy, but the theory of parallel universes is now considered serious science, and Hugh Everett is, to some, an icon.

But to his son Mark, he has always been an enigma.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I don't remember knowing, when he was alive, that he was, like, a famous physicist. I don't know if I ever even knew that until after he'd died.

Dad, Mom, can you hear me?

Here's my mom. This is the one. I've never seen it before. Oh, there's one for my sister, too. I've never seen that. Wait, where's the, where's my father's stone? I just don't get it, it's a mystery.

NARRATOR: Mark's father was a distracted genius, lost in his own world. They lived in the same house for 20 years, yet they barely spoke. For Mark, one of their most memorable encounters came in July, 1982.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: It was the weirdest thing, because I walked in their bedroom and there he was, laying there, like, sideways on the bed, fully clothed, with his tie on, like he always had on, you know. I tried to wake him up. When I put my arms under him, and I picked him up, his body was completely stiff. And it was just so surreal, because I was touching him which was the only time I could remember having any physical contact with him. Yeah, and it was just so also so, obviously, it was, you know, very traumatic and a horrific scene. But it was also...had the added surreal quality for me, because, you know, my father had just died, but I, you know, I barely knew him. So it was hard to know how to feel like a normal person would feel in that situation. So I guess it's pretty sad that I had, you know...the one really intimate experience I had with him was while he was dead, you know.

(Singing): i don't leave the house much
i don't like being around people
it's better for me to stay home
some might think it means i hate people
but that's not quite right

NARRATOR: Mark fiercely guards his privacy, but now he's decided to take a journey to try to understand his father and the bizarre theory he dreamed up.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I'm going to go on this trip, because it's something that I knew was coming, eventually. I didn't want to wait too long either, you know, with my family history, the longevity rate there. Well, you have to have a sense of humor. You know, that came from my family. That was the way we communicated, like nobody said, "I love you," or anything like that. It was more, it was more, it was a very kind of jokey, sarcastic family, and that was how we communicated, you know.

Oh, what do we got here? This is Bobby's room. I mean how many dogs get their own room? He's the most spoiled dog in Los Feliz, maybe in the world.

NARRATOR: Understanding how his father came up with the idea of parallel universes is going to be tricky, because science was never Mark's strong point.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I only have a very, very vague understanding of my father's theory. It gets up to a certain point and it becomes, like, impenetrable. And then it gets into the scientist language, which is like, "Blah, blah, blah, blah." It's like a different alphabet they're using, practically.

NARRATOR: Hugh Everett's theory was so bold, that it set him on a collision course with the most brilliant minds of the physics world.

Taken to the extreme, parallel universes would mean that with every event that could happen in more ways than one, universes branch off in different directions. That means that, moment to moment, we divide into multiple versions of ourselves.

Applying the theory to Mark, he splits in two at the very moment he decides to go on his trip. In another parallel universe, a version of himself stays at home in L.A., while in this universe, Mark sets off.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT (Singing):blinking lights on the airplane wings
up above the trees
set me on the ground
once more again

NARRATOR: Like his father, Mark grew up just outside Washington, D.C. Still living in the area is physicist Don Reisler, a work colleague and friend of his father's.

DON REISLER: Hello, Mark!

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: You dressed for me.

DON REISLER: Absolutely! Who could turn down this opportunity? I mean, how often does a rock star come to my house?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: It's good to see you; my goodness.

DON REISLER: Hey, it's delightful to see you.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: How long has it been? Twenty-five years?

DON REISLER: Twenty-five years.


DON REISLER: You are now so old that you are the age I was when you last saw me.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Really? Wow. You guys are always doing the math.

DON REISLER: Always doing strange stuff, yeah. So, come in and be comfortable: bathroom there if you need, fluids here. We can sit down.


When did you first meet my father?

DON REISLER: 1970. It was a job interview. And he very timidly—I know that's not what you think of —but very, very timidly said, "Have you, by any chance, seen my paper on quantum mechanics?"


DON REISLER: That day, yeah. And I said, "Oh my god, you're that Hugh Everett?" Because I had seen it and thought it was the work of a raving lunatic. And told him!


DON REISLER: And so, and he thought it was funny. And so we knew we could enjoy each other.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Wow. Even though he was a constant physical presence, he is really a complete mystery, as a person, to me. What was he like? You know, that's what I don't really know.

DON REISLER: He was peculiar and a bit eccentric. He was a very good friend to me, in his way. Yeah, I will show you something, that friendship and contrast.

You have here...

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Wow, he is outside.

DON REISLER: This would have been late '70s.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: That's basically what he was wearing every day and every night at the dining room table, as well, that was his uniform.

The only thing you guys have in common is facial hair.


MARK OLIVER EVERETT: And otherwise, you look like completely different, you know...


MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Like city guy and mountain guy.

DON REISLER: And yet, we were really good friends.

NARRATOR: Don is an expert in quantum mechanics, the laws that govern the tiniest particles. To start Mark out nice and easy, all Don needs is a pencil.

DON REISLER: If I take a pencil, and I cut it in half and cut it in half and cut it in half, and just get ever, ever smaller pieces, at some point I may run out of something I can cut in half. You've gotten to the point where the pencil no longer can be subdivided. You've come to something that's no longer bits of a pencil, but is something more fundamental, and that was the notion of an atom.

NARRATOR: Atoms are the buildings blocks of the universe, tiny particles that make up everything we see around us, from houses and guitars to rock musicians. They're so small that there are more atoms in a period than there are pencils in the whole world.

If you could somehow look inside one of these atoms you might see what it's made of. In the middle is a concentrated ball of material called the nucleus. Around the nucleus are tiny particles called electrons. These electrons spin super-quick around the nucleus.

Now—this is the crazy part—the classical laws of physics seem to work fine for everything much bigger than an atom. For instance, Newton's gravity makes apples go down rather than up, and at an intuitive level, these classical laws make perfect sense.

But when it comes to really tiny stuff, like atoms, the classical laws break down. The electrons don't fly around the nucleus in nice regular orbits like planets around the Sun, but instead they are smeared out, taking on a cloud-like form. And even weirder still, they are everywhere at once. Welcome to the quantum world.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: What do you think about this? You know, my father, clearly, on top of his game with the mathematics and whatnot, and I...the farthest I got was I flunked out of the easiest 9th grade algebra class. I just couldn't grasp it.


MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I just didn't inherit that gene.

DON REISLER: Yeah. I've thought a lot about that.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: About how stupid I was in math?

DON REISLER: I think I'd have phrased it differently.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Did...maybe my father spoke of it?

DON REISLER: No, no. I mean...

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: What a disappointment I was?

DON REISLER: No. I think, if your father had had the emotional vocabulary, he'd have been very, very pleased with what you did with your music.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT (Singing): feel like an old railroad man
ridin' out on the bluemont line
hummin' along old dominion blues
not much to see and not much left to lose
and i know i can walk along the tracks
it may take a little longer but i'll know
how to find my way back

NARRATOR: Hugh Everett applied to graduate school at Princeton, wanting to be close to his hero, Albert Einstein. A glowing reference from Hugh's undergraduate professor confirms that he was already seen as unusually gifted.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: It says, "This is once in a lifetime recommendation, where I think it most unlikely that I shall ever again encounter a student I can give such complete and unreserved support."

Yeah that sounds like a ringing endorsement.

NARRATOR: Hugh arrived at Princeton, in 1953, at the age of 22. After a year studying math, he was persuaded to switch to the far more glamorous quantum mechanics. The man who was the catalyst was Professor John Wheeler, his new mentor. Wheeler was keen on a particular experiment.

It's called the "double slit" experiment, and physics professors love it, because it's the perfect way to demonstrate the weird quantum behavior of tiny particles.

RICHARD FEYNMAN (Physicist, Archival Footage) I'm going to tell you what nature behaves like, and if you will simply admit that maybe she behaves like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. So, that's the way to look at the lectures, not to try and understand. I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

NARRATOR: Here at Princeton, Mark is going to be shown the double slit experiment by laboratory demonstrator Ye Ma.

YE MA (Princeton University): You made it, huh?


YE MA: Alright, so you want to see this experiment?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Yeah, Lay it on me.

YE MA: Ok, so let's...

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: See if you can make me understand quantum physics.

YE MA: It's a challenge, but I accept it. Okay, what we have here is a black box, but inside it's rather simple. Here is a laser.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Is this laser going to blow my eyes out or anything?

YE MA: No, they are very...

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I went to a Who concert in seventh grade and the laser when right in my eyes, and I've had to wear glasses ever since.

YE MA: I see. Usually, we don't see the laser beam in the air, so we have a way of showing it. You see that?


NARRATOR: The laser beam is made up of tiny particles of light called photons. Photons behave similarly to electrons, but because we can actually see photons as light, they're ideal for this experiment.

The laser beam is filtered so single photons fire off one at a time. The individual particles then arrive at a plastic barrier with two narrow slits. On the other side is a sensitive camera to show where the photons end up.

YE MA: What do you expect? You expect will hit two spot here like that, or you expect the photon will go all over the map? What do you expect? We have two slits here.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: The choices are all over the map or...

YE MA: Just two spots.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Just the two spots?

NARRATOR: Exactly. Mark is using his common sense. Imagine this experiment was blown up to a much larger scale, so that the particles are tennis balls. And a machine is firing the tennis balls at a barrier with two gaps in it. Of course, you'd expect to find the balls hitting the back wall in two places in line with the two slits. But when our experiment is done with individual photons from the laser, something very different happens.

YE MA: Okay, you see screen up there?


YE MA: That's what we see from the camera. See those individual flashes?


YE MA: Those are the photons.

NARRATOR: Each flash of light is actually an individual photon hitting the back wall. They appear to be landing all over the place. But watch over time and a pattern emerges.

YE MA: Can you see somewhere in the middle of the screen?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: It looks like a smudge.

YE MA: Yeah, it looks like smudge. Those are the photon...where the photon hits, but it's not two as we would expect. Is that weird?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Yes. So why is that?

YE MA: That's right, why is that?

NARRATOR: Instead of the two bands that you'd expect, a series of smudges appears. It turns out that some photons land in a place on the back wall that would be physically impossible if they had traveled straight through just one of the slits.

So, on the quantum level, particles like photons don't always act like tennis balls. Instead, the pattern of photons matches what you'd get if you sent waves of water through the slits. It looks as if, while it's traveling, each photon spreads out into a wave, passes through both slits, then interferes with itself on the way to the back wall, where once again it acts like a particle, showing up in just one spot.

Could this mean that, as it travels, the photon goes through both slits? That it's in two places at once?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Now you're blowing my mind.

YE MA: Good, that's our job to do, to blow people's mind. So, make you think, right?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Hoo. My brain hurts

YE MA: Okay.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I wish I was back home playing my guitar.

NARRATOR: And it's not just photons that behave like this. The double slit experiment has been replicated with electrons and with atoms. So you might wonder, if we are made up of atoms, and if atoms could be in two places at the same time, why couldn't we?

One man thought he had the answer, the godfather of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr. He'd won the Nobel Prize for his research into the atom. By the 1950s, Bohr had replaced Einstein as the giant of the physics world.

a student to challenge him, he'd have to be very naive or very arrogant. It could be argued that Hugh Everett was both.

CHARLES MISNER (Everett's classmate): Yeah, that's me and Hale, and this is Niels Bohr.

NARRATOR: This photograph was taken when Bohr visited Princeton. The other men are Hugh's fellow students, who've come back to Princeton for their own private reunion.

CHARLES MISNER: Notice that everyone is wearing gowns. That was required in those days.

HALE F. TROTTER (Everett's classmate): Yeah, those were our dinner gowns.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: You had to wear, at dinner you had to wear the gowns?

CHARLES MISNER: We had to wear the gowns. You had to wear dinner gowns. There was a big fight about them.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Lucky you didn't have to wear the powdered wigs.

HARVEY J. ARNOLD (Everett's classmate): They were also convenient for the occasional sneaking in of a female, such as it was.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: So what's going on here? Bohr has come to give a lecture?

CHARLES MISNER: Yeah, he'd come to give a lecture. So this is where talks would be given. This would be the place where Bohr would've given his talk that evening, where we had the photograph from.

HARVEY ARNOLD: I was sitting over in, I think, a soft seat here, and Bohr was sitting about here, and I was just snoring over in the corner.

NARRATOR: If Hugh's old pal Harvey had managed to stay awake, he may have heard "the world according to Bohr." Bohr proposed that everything be divided into two categories. Big stuff—like tennis balls, apples falling off trees—obeys the classical laws of physics; however, small stuff—about the size of atoms—obeys the crazy laws of quantum mechanics.

Bohr didn't stop there. He described what happens when you look at something very tiny. At that exact moment, the particle stops behaving so weirdly. Instead of being in a smeared out wave—in many places at once—when observed, it's in just one place. It's now a nice well-behaved little particle.

The whole shebang was called the "Copenhagen Interpretation," and thanks to Bohr, became the established view. Oh, by the way, Copenhagen was Bohr's hometown.

But the young and ambitious Hugh thought it was all most unlikely. How can just looking at something affect its behavior? Hugh was convinced that Bohr had it all wrong, and so he decided to start on his own radical theory, helped, on most evenings, by a sherry or two.


HARVEY ARNOLD: Yes, please.

HALE TROTTER: For a while we had fairly regular sherry meetings before dinner, very cheap sherry.

Toast to Hugh.

CHARLES MISNER: Hugh, yeah, great.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Which room was my dad's?

HALE TROTTER: It's the room up there with the open window.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Wow, that's, like, the penthouse. Did they put the smartest guys up at the top? Is that how it works?

HALE TROTTER: Yeah, probably.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Is that the room where he wrote his theory?

HALE TROTTER: Yeah, it must have been.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Wow, that's pretty exciting. So what year would this have been, when you lived here?



CHARLES MISNER: Yeah, '53 to '54.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Let's come into my father's bedroom. So if you lay in the bed in this room, it's said that you will come up with crazy theories. This is exciting, like, in the music world, this would be like going to the Abbey Road Studios or something.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Interestingly enough, I didn't inherit any of his mathematical genius. I have trouble adding up the tip at dinner.

HALE TROTTER: I wonder what you feel you understand about your father's theory?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I understand that up to the point of "anything that can be happening is happening somewhere." The somewhere part is the hard part to wrap my brain around, you know?

I feel like I'm in a science show now.

NARRATOR: A meeting with Max Tegmark, an astrophysicist and a big fan of Hugh's theory, is set to bend Mark's brain further out of shape.


MAX TEGMARK: Hey. I'm Max.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Nice to meet you.

MAX TEGMARK: It is a real honor to get to meet you because your dad has been such an inspiration to me. When I was a grad student, in Berkeley, I found, in this old bookstore, a copy of this 137-page paper that your dad wrote, and I was like, wow, it suddenly all made sense. And since then, I've spent many years working on your dad's theory and various implications of it.

NARRATOR: Mark's father wasn't the only one who found Bohr's theory difficult to swallow. So did the physicist Erwin Schroedinger#246;dinger.

MAX TEGMARK: As Schrödinger himself pointed out in a famous article, that there is something really weird about this idea of dividing the world into two parts, because, you know, you are made out of atoms, so if an atom can be in two places at once, so can you, right?

NARRATOR: Schrödinger had devised an experiment to expose this absurdity. He came up with the most famous feline experiment in science, "Schrödinger's cat."

It goes like this: A cat is penned up in a steel chamber along with a radioactive substance such as uranium, a Geiger counter attached to a quick-release hammer, and a flask of poison gas, hydrocyanic acid.



MARK OLIVER EVERETT: He doesn't even have legs and now you're going to poison him.

MAX TEGMARK: Don't blame me, blame Schrödinger.

NARRATOR: Schrödinger was never diabolical enough to do this for real, it was just a thought experiment.

At the heart of it all is a quantum event. Every now and then, completely randomly, there's a chance of a uranium atom decaying and emitting radiation. This radiation is enough to trigger the counter that sets off the hammer that breaks the vial that poisons the cat. But if none of the uranium atoms decay over the duration of the experiment, the cat will live.

MAX TEGMARK: What's so disturbing about this is the fate of a single atom, right, determines the fate of a cat.

NARRATOR: According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, until the experiment is observed by peering inside, the entire contents of the box exist in two possible states. Each uranium atom both has and has not decayed. And still further, the poisonous gas has both killed and not killed the cat. And this is the paradox: a single cat that is both dead and alive at the same time. That's what Schrödinger couldn't buy and neither could Hugh.

In the winter of 1954, sometime after the Bohr lecture, fortified by some sherry and a chat with Bohr's assistant Aage Petersen, Hugh came up with the theory of parallel universes.

Hugh argued that everything in the universe, big and small, obeys the laws of quantum mechanics. And instead of the observer, Hugh introduced the notion of splitting. Splitting occurs every time a quantum event happens, and this is how parallel universes are created.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: How does my father's theory solve the two different outcomes of the cat experiment?

MAX TEGMARK: It says that both outcomes actually happen.

NARRATOR: The paradox had been that the one cat was both dead and alive at the same time. Hugh solved the problem with parallel universes: two cats existing in separate worlds, one cat dead, the other alive.

Hugh's bold theory was backed up by some serious math. He was only 24 years old.

MARK EVERETT OLIVER (Singing): some people think you have a problem
but that problem lies only with them
beautiful freak, beautiful freak

NARRATOR: Today, Hugh's ideas remain controversial, though a few physicists, like Max, see Hugh Everett as a visionary.

MAX TEGMARK: In my personal opinion, your dad's theory is...was one of the most important discoveries of all time in science. I just can't emphasize enough how important I think it is.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I'm starting to understand a lot more now; just need to come out here into the nice Princeton air and shake, shake my head a little, and let it all settle; talk to the squirrels.

So, if one squirrel gets the decayed poison and the other squirrel gets the non-decayed there's three of them. Now I'm really confused.

Here we go!

(Singing) walk myself down sycamore street
the sun beats down
no shoes on my feet

(Speaking) Don't use that.

(Singing) a daisy through concrete
a daisy through concrete

DANIEL J. LINKE: (Archivist, Princeton University): So this is the archives of Princeton University, itself. Over 250 years of the institution's documents are here, and, of course, every dissertation that's been produced, starting in the 1870s, including your father's 1957 dissertation, which is right down here. So...

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: On the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. Haven't heard that title before? "Recommended for acceptance by the Department of Physics. March, 1957."

So, this is the opening of the theory, and I actually, the crazy thing is I actually understand it.

"Quantum mechanics is reformulated in a way which eliminates its present dependence on the special treatment of observations of a system by external observer."

This is getting weird, because I know what that means now. What's happening to me?

NARRATOR: What Hugh had done was explain the paradoxes of quantum mechanics in a whole new way, taking out the need for an observer that Bohr had so relied on.

With the hubris of youth, Hugh hoped that Bohr would recognize his parallel universe theory as a breakthrough, a validation of his genius.

NARRATOR: In the spring of 1959, Hugh Everett traveled with his wife, Nancy, and young daughter, Liz, to Copenhagen. Hugh's mentor, John Wheeler, had arranged a meeting between his student and Bohr.

CHARLIE MISNER (University of Maryland): This is a view from across the street of the Bohr Institute, as it was when your father was there talking with Bohr.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Oh, so that's where it happened?

CHARLIE MISNER: That's where it happened, yeah.

NARRATOR: Hugh's old college friend Charlie Misner and his wife Susanne were in Copenhagen at the time, and Charlie witnessed the whole thing.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: What happened when my father presented his theory to Bohr?

CHARLIE MISNER: Well, Bohr was deeply involved for decades with a view of quantum mechanics that he had developed and was essentially totally accepted throughout the world of thousands of physicists doing it every day.

Each of them was sure that they had gone over all this in their own minds, and they knew exactly what was the right way to think about it. And it was very hard to find a way to arrange a meeting of the minds.

NARRATOR: The debate went nowhere. Bohr's position remained unchanged, and without his blessing, Hugh's idea was ignored. Like Bohr, many physicists, then and now, discount Hugh's theory. For them, the equations of quantum mechanics work so well, the whole issue is beside the point.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: It must have been incredibly frustrating to feel like he'd come up with something so groundbreaking and then just have it brushed under the rug.

SUSANNE MISNER (Charlie Misner's Wife): Oh, yeah. It was very sad. He was always joking when we were around, but I sense the joking was like the clown jokes.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: The tears of a clown?


CHARLIE MISNER: That's certainly possible.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: To me it sort of made sense why he was this kind of isolated presence in the house all those years, just sitting there and not really saying much.


SUSANNE MISNER: Oh, is that right? Well, I sensed he was not really happy.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Yeah, I think he was definitely depressed.

SUSANNE MISNER: Your...his mother was somewhat bipolar, wasn't she?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Yeah, she spent time in mental hospitals and...

SUSANNE MISNER: And what about your sister?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: And my sister, yeah.

SUSANNE MISNER: Was she having also depressions?


SUSANNE MISNER: So, I think I was...I could sense that Hugh was...

CHARLIE MISNER: Yes, oh, you're no doubt right.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: There is a little strain of crazy in the family.

SUSANNE MISNER: Well we have it in our family. My sister committed suicide, and Liz also took her own life.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Yeah. You know, when Liz committed suicide, in her suicide note she wrote that she was going off to meet our father in a parallel universe.

SUSANNE MISNER: She was a very intelligent girl.


SUSANNE MISNER: So it was very sad.

NARRATOR: With a family history of depression, Hugh took the rejection of his theory hard and soon left academia for good.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: I have gotten to, like, a turning point where I am really glad I am doing this. It's getting interesting now.

To the me that split off and didn't come on this trip—you lazy sack o'—because I mean, I really feel propelled by the sadness of the tragedy of my father not getting the recognition he deserved, because he was just too far ahead of his time, maybe too smart too soon.

Being too smart too soon, he didn't really get a chance to pursue more, I think, because he just felt like, you know, "What's the point if no one's going to listen to me?"

I am getting more comfortable with who my father is. The more I'm learning about him, the more I am getting to know him, the more I like him, you know? I know he, he seems like a good guy, to me, overall. He had his problems, obviously. Tried pretty hard in his own weird way. He has already done more than I have done, in terms of being a father, so, you know, you've got to give him that much.

He let me play drums in the house. That's my train. I've got to go: on to the next fantastic voyage into my father's brain. Got to go.

My father died when I was 19. My sister died several years later, and my mom died soon after she did. And at that point, I had to go out and clean out the family house.

I boxed up a whole bunch of stuff of my father's. It's all been sitting under my house all these years, and I haven't ever looked at any of it. And, you know, it's a painful, painful world to open up.

NARRATOR: For Hugh Everett's biographer, Peter Byrne, this is an eagerly anticipated scientific gold mine, but it could also provide Mark with some new clues about his father.

PETER BYRNE (Hugh Everett's Biographer): Oh, wow, man. This is a really cool basement.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Where do you want to start?

PETER BYRNE: A treasure trove here.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: That one over there? The plastic...

PETER BYRNE: Want to start there, and then come back and start looking at the work papers?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: It's another rock 'n' roll party Saturday for me.

PETER BYRNE: This is the footnotes to a quantum mechanics paper.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: This is the kind of stuff I would always see him writing at the dining room table. It would look like this stuff, which looks like another language to me.

PETER BYRNE: Yeah, that's linear algebra. It's quantum mechanics; it's the language that they use for it.

That's a really good photo, man. He looks, like, bushy-tailed and bright-eyed.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: That didn't last long...didn't...and then no one took him seriously, and he lost the fire in his eyes.

PETER BYRNE: Well, yeah. I mean how you would you like to invent like one of the coolest things of all time and have people go "uhhh?"

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Happens every time I put an album out.

PETER BYRNE: Oh yeah, oh yeah, definitely!

Cool! This looks like tapes.


PETER BYRNE: Who knows what's on there, man. That's going to be amazing to listen to that, 'cause who knows what's on there.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: The bad news is that I remember dropping his Dictaphone in the tub once, when I was a kid, and ruining it. But hopefully that's not the same one that I ruined.

I don't know if I would recognize his voice, to be honest with you, because besides the fact that it's been 25 years since he died, I didn't hear him speak much in the 18 years or 19 years I lived in the house with him. So it would probably sound weird to me, to hear his voice.

PETER BYRNE: Oh, there you go.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Let's see if it works.

That didn't sound good. This might be the one I dropped in the tub, when I was a kid.


MARK OLIVER EVERETT: That's true, so, they must be...

NARRATOR: Archive material of Hugh is surprisingly scarce. There are very few photographs of him and no known film footage. These Dictaphone tapes might be the only recording ever made of Hugh's voice.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Think we're out of luck on this for today. Alright, I'll get my people on this.


MARK OLIVER EVERETT: One of my roadies can probably figure this one out.

PETER BYRNE: There's universes in which it worked, you know?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT (Singing): Hey, man. What? Dig this. The world is going to end tomorrow. Hey, buddy, got a nickel I can borrow? This rotten world's going to chew you up.

NARRATOR: The late 1950s were the height of the Cold War. Disappointed and disillusioned with academia, Hugh went to work as a military analyst.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Going to the Pentagon, which I, again, never saw myself going to in my lifetime. I don't think I've ever been there, I don't think Dad ever took me there for Daddy-Son work day.

NARRATOR: At the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, Hugh could defer the draft and earn a good salary.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: How the hell did I get clearance? Amazing! I am standing here where Generals make speeches. What kind of kooky world is this? But also, it makes you ask, "How good is the security?" if they let me in here, you know, because I'm loco. Right, back to business. First question: A.B.C.

NARRATOR: One of Hugh's Pentagon assignments was "The Radioactive Fallout Project," which analyzed the chilling effects of nuclear war between The Soviet Union and the US.


GEORGE PUGH (Nuclear Physicist): Oh, hi!

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Hi. Long time, no see.

NARRATOR: Hugh's colleague on this project was nuclear physicist George Pugh.

GEORGE PUGH: I think the last time I remember really meeting you, at the time, you were busy getting better and better playing the drums.


NARRATOR: Based on their research, according to George, he and Hugh warned President Eisenhower that the military had completely underestimated the global devastation of nuclear war.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Do you think my father ever had any moral issues working for the government? You weren't a couple of trigger happy guys with the fate of the world at your hands?

GEORGE PUGH: No. After we briefed Eisenhower, there was a gradual shift in U.S. policy not to build so many twenty-megaton weapons as they were doing, and for God's sake, not to go to a-hundred-megaton weapons, which they never did.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: So, you guys really made a positive difference in the world?

GEORGE PUGH: I think we really did, yeah.


GEORGE PUGH: It was as darn good thing somebody did what we did.


NARRATOR: After Hugh left the weapons group, in 1964, he went into business developing computerized nuclear war games for the military and was pretty successful. But in May, 1977, Hugh got a pleasant surprise.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT (singing) : Today is a lovely day to run. Start up the car with the sun.

NARRATOR: The University of Texas invited him to speak at a physics conference, so he packed up the family and drove to Austin.

Hugh's theory had started to be referenced in articles and books. There was a real buzz about parallel universes among a number of young physicists.

DAVID DEUTSCH: He was a kind of star at the conference.

NARRATOR: For shy young physicist David Deutsch, later to become one of Britain's leading experts in quantum mechanics, it was a terrific opportunity to learn about the theory from the original source.

DAVID DEUTSCH: He was deferred to almost like a star. For instance, I seem to remember that he was smoking, and no one else was allowed to smoke.

NARRATOR: Hugh Everett was finally receiving the recognition he'd always craved.

DAVID DEUTSCH: He certainly seemed to be enjoying the conference. He seemed to be firing on all 6 or 8, or however many it was, cylinders, and was impressing everybody with the sharpness of his arguments.

NARRATOR: After the Texas conference, more young physicists embraced Hugh's theory, and parallel worlds worked their way into popular culture.

Today the fundamental paradoxes of quantum mechanics remain unresolved, but Hugh's idea is seen by many physicists as one of several possible explanations.

Unfortunately, Hugh Everett would see little of this. In 1982, just five years after the Texas conference, Hugh Everett died of a heart attack, likely helped along by chain-smoking and hard drinking. He was only 51 years old. He had worked on his theory for just three years. The rest of his life had been spent in defense work or in business.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Those little tapes that we found in my basement, that were on a strange antique format that we couldn't play, I have now had my team of experts transfer them. Little bit nervous, yeah, I don't, just don't know what to expect here.

Well, let's see what we got. Hmmm. Don't really want to play it... flipping out. Don't know what to expect here. Well, alright here goes. Male voices, this should be interesting.

VOICE ON TAPE: Testing, one, two, three, four, five. Testing, testing, testing.

INTERVIEWER: Well it's been a great evening. Why don't you lead on, after your drink, by telling us how you got started with weird quantum mechanics?

HUGH EVERETT (Physicist/Recorded): Well it was because of you and Aage Petersen, one night up at the graduate college, after a slosh or two of sherry, as you might recall.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Wow, okay, that does...that is my father's voice. I recognize it there. Wow, he's talking about, like, that picture we saw.

HUGH EVERETT (Recorded): Oh, you were starting to say some ridiculous things about the implications of quantum mechanics, and I was having a little fun joshing you and telling you some of the outrageous implications of what you said. As we had a little more sherry and got a little further into the conversation. Oooooohhhh! Okay.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: That got my dad excited. It's weird hearing him be so talkative, too, because I rarely heard him talk that much.

HUGH EVERETT (Recorded): And it still feels that way a little bit, even as recently as last month in Austin, a little bit.

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Was that last month in Austin? Wait, then I know when this is.

HUGH EVERETT (Recorded): ...even as recently as last month in Austin, a little bit...

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: It's interesting 'cause my dad doesn't sound bitter at all here. And I think he's sort of on a high, because he'd just, finally, got some recognition. This is, you know, a month after he went on the trip to Austin, and he said, like, "Oh, you should've been in Austin."

HUGH EVERETT (Recorded): Well, there's obviously something wrong here. I showed the paradoxes and like that and thought they should begin to change it.


HUGH EVERETT (Recorded): And you did keep saying why?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Oh. I'm playing drums.

HUGH EVERETT (Recorded): His ultimate conservatism, as he put it, kept coming through, you know?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: Not fazing my dad whatsoever, you'll notice.

INTERVIEWER: You felt you had to put Johnny on the straight and narrow track?

MARK OLIVER EVERETT: End of this tape.

It's so weird. It's weird because it's like the sounds of my house, you know, there. And, man, it's hard because much as I hate to look back on it all and everything, I'd also, like, love to be able to be back there just for one night, maybe, you know?

Various voices. Duration 21 minutes, 7 seconds. Sounds like a hit to me.

Huh, I think that's our cat purring. I'm pretty sure. It's funny if that's my dad recording that, if he's recording the cat purring, I wouldn't be surprised. You know he did have a thing with animals that was contrary to the way he was with humans, which I also have, too, it turns out, as you may have noticed.

I thought I heard a duck. We didn't have a duck.

(Recorded): Hello there, my name is Mark Everett, and I am very great. And you know it because I am great and beautiful and superfantastic great. You know that I am great...da, da, da, da, da. I am great, so great. So great.

(Speaking) I wonder where my delusions of grandeur came from.

(Speaking) Oh. And then we've lost power, because it...I told you this was a weird family. We were all clearly experiments.

(Singing): i'm turning out just like my father
though i swore i never would
now i can say that i have love for him
i never really understood
what it must have been like for him
living inside his head
i feel like he's here with me now
even though he's dead

(Speaking) I feel like I know my father a lot better, you know. I feel a lot more connected to him. I understand more, like, the whole timeline of events, and when he was dreaming these things up, when he actually did it. And you know, just talking to all these people that knew him, and it's interesting, it feels like he is around now, you know, more than I have ever felt. (Thunderclap)

That was too good. That was, like, good. I mean, that's just going to sound like we put that in, in sounds effects, you know, just too perfect.

(Singing): so in the end i'd like to say
that i'm a very thankful man
i had some regrets
but if i had to do it all again
well, it's something i'd like to do

(Speaking) I am not a physics genius. I can't even open an umbrella.

You know, for years, I haven't opened up any of the boxes under my house of my dad's stuff and everything. And I've known it was coming eventually, where I was going to have to because of the mounting interest in him. But now that I am doing it, I am really glad I am doing it. It feels good. It's such a genuinely unique experience to go through. However, I thought still have a little bit of trepidation about the rest of my life having to be like the ambassador from the planet Everett, you know.

Had I known this was coming, I probably wouldn't have even attempted music and figured, "Well, I'll get girls this way." Then again, the physics guys...not really the same as rock stars are they? They are, though, in their world, you know? Like, my dad is a rock star of the physics world, for sure.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

NARRATOR: On NOVA's Web site, read original documents written by Hugh Everett, examine the link between parallel worlds and pop culture and hear where the theory stands today. Find it on

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