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Zenith Grant Awardee

Mr. Peter Byrne

Oxford University Press

Project Title

The Devil's Pitchfork: Multiple Universes, Mutually Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family

Project Summary

The Devil's Pitchfork follows the historical adventures of Hugh Everett III (1930- 1982) who invented a theory of multiple universes that scientists and philosophers take seriously. Everett strove to bring a "rational" order to the interlacing worlds of nuclear war and physics, even as his personal world disintegrated due to his indulgent lifestyle. Using Everett's unpublished papers, and dozens of interviews, the biography paints a detailed portrait of a man who influenced foundational thinking in quantum mechanics by inventing a way of viewing the universe from inside (known as the universal wave function). In addition to his famous interpretation of quantum mechanics, Everett wrote one of the classic papers in game theory; invented computer algorithms that revolutionized military operations research; and he did pioneering work in artificial intelligence. As a Cold Warrior, he designed systems that modeled human behavior and, yet, he was largely oblivious to the emotional damage he inflicted upon his family and lovers and business partners. But he left behind, in recently discovered boxes of dusty documents, a fascinating record of his life, including correspondence with the leading scientific minds of the day that illuminates the often bitter struggle over interpreting the mystery at the heart of quantum mechanics.

Technical Abstract

In July 1957, Reviews of Modern Physics published "Relative State Formulation of Quantum Mechanics," the physics dissertation of Hugh Everett III. The theory argued for a "universal wave function" as a solution to the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. In Everett's formulation, macroscopic superpositions are all equally real. His so-called "Many Worlds" interpretation was scoffed at for many years, but Nature featured it on it cover in 2007. Using original source material. The Devil's Pitchfork documents the origin and development of Everett's foundational questions theory, while narrating the story of his family's tragic decline. The book is scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press in 2009. It describes the importance of Everett's theory to quantum mechanics and cosmology; his top-secret work designing nuclear war strategies for the Pentagon; his seminal work in game theory and in designing optimization algorithms; and the impact of his work on modern philosophy. The story reveals the intense debate in Copenhagen over the validity of the theory. Everett's thesis advisor at Princeton, John Wheeler, went to bat for it with Niels Bohr, challenging the prevailing interpretation of quantum mechanics–and lost. Ultimately, though, Everett's theory is regarded by many physicists as more explanatory than Bohr's "Copenhagen Interpretation."

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