We do not consider ourselves experts on quantam mechanics or theories of multiple universes, but we like The Eels and we especially enjoyed NOVA’s recent “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” about Mark Oliver Everett (also known as “E”) and his father, the brilliant, remote, hard-drinking Hugh Everett III, whose controversial Many Worlds Theory proposed that other universes are continually being created out of everyday reality. As you might imagine, this made for an interesting father-son dynamic in the Everett household. “He was a physical presence, like the furniture, sitting there jotting down crazy notations at the dining room table night after night,” says Mark, who was frequently upstairs pounding on his drums. The science gene did not pass from father to son: Mark flunked ninth grade algebra, and admits to barely being able to calculate his restaurant tip.
The program follows Mark as he interviews his father’s former colleagues and physicists today who champion Hugh’s theory (which was discredited by Niels Bohr). It’s also a sad saga of the unraveling of the Everett clan. Mark’s father died of a heart attack when Mark was 19 (he found the body). His mother died of cancer in 1998, while his sister committed suicide, saying in her suicide note that she was going off to meet their dad in a parallel universe. (Electro-Shock Blues, the album the Eels released after Mark’s mom and sister died, is one of the more uplifting concept albums about death that you’ll ever hear.) On top of all that, Mark’s cousin Jennifer was a flight stewardess on 9/11’s Flight 77. Mark is the last remaining Everett, yet there’s something life-affirming about watching him trace his father’s career and grapple with his ideas. By the end, he has essentially met his dad for the first time.
Watch the program here, but do it before October 28. PBS will take it down after that due to rights restrictions. A warning to cat lovers: Scooter Thomas had to look away during the grisly animation sequence explaining the graphic experiment known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” It is not pretty.
You can read an excerpt from Mark’s autobiography, Things The Grandchildren Should Know, here.
And this is an excerpt from Hugh’s doctoral dissertation at Princeton, using amoebas as a metaphor to describe his concept of splitting “observers.” If it makes a lick of sense to you, you should consider quantum mechanics as a day job.