An evening with Eels (and with quantum mechanics)

Last Friday I went to the Conservatorio di Milano to hear Eels, an alternative-indie-progressive-country-folk-rock group mostly consisting of Mark Oliver Everett (also known as Mr. E), a musician and singer with a cool Virginian twang. They are touring in their two-man-band incarnation, the other musician being introduced merely as The Chet. (Interesting things happen when spaces meant for classical music invite performers of contemporary popular music – I loved Nick Cave’s concert at the wonderful pearwood-paneled Auditorium di Milano a few years ago.)

The performance combined musical virtuosity and stand-up comedic humor; in a particularly surreal page from Everett’s forthcoming autobiography read aloud by The Chet, Everett recalls getting to Hollywood for the first time in his life, finding himself standing next to Angie Dickinson on the Walk of Stars, and offering her a tape with his music. But there was more autobiography than in most concerts because Everett chose to show the audience, before getting to the music, a one-hour BBC documentary called “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives“.

It turns out that Mark’s father was Hugh Everett, a physicist best known for having been the proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an interpretation flatly rejected by Niels Bohr (causing Everett to abandon theoretical research and get a job at the Pentagon) and only later rehabilitated as a legitimate (though still a minority) interpretation, popularized for the lay reader in David Deutsch’s excellent The Fabric of Reality, which I recall reading with fascination a few years ago. The BBC movie starts with Mark, an artist with no scientific education or talent whatsoever, realizing he knew nothing about his father. Although Mark and his father lived for 19 years in the same house, and Mark found his body when he died of a heart attack at the age of 51, it was as if they had been living in separate worlds. So Mark, followed by the BBC cameras, sets out on a journey to meet the scientists who had known Hugh Everett, from Princeton to Copenhagen, and gets a rough but effective overview of quantum mechanics (a memorable Schrödinger’s cat is drawn in chalk and dies on a blackboard) in the process of trying to understand who his father was and what he believed: in particular, the many-worlds interpretation does away with the need for an external observer to determine a quantic state, since the wavefunction collapse is only a subjective appearance, and the cat is both dead and alive, so to speak, in parallel worlds. The documentary is set to a soundtrack of Eels songs and is, well, brilliant (but not available online – the good souls at BBC only uploaded a short, non-embeddable teaser on YouTube).

I may be unable to take my Friday nights lightly, but I always love it when I learn something, in addition to having fun.

3 thoughts on “An evening with Eels (and with quantum mechanics)

  1. Right in these days I’ve been reading “Goldilock Enigma” by Paul Davies, an up to date pop science account on multiverse theories (the book provides an example of multiverse in its very title, being retailed as “Cosmic Jackpot” in the US and “Goldilock Enigma” in the UK).

    Paul Davies and Hugh Everett had one or two things in common, starting from their scientific mentor John Wheeler. As Davies explains, Wheeler had a penchant for bending quantum mechanics to address ultimate questions traditionally left to philosophy and religion. Wheeler supervised Everett’s PhD dissertation and for about 20 years found himself in a minority of one when defending his pupil’s many-worlds interpretation against the dominant, observer-centric Copenhagen interpretation.

    Everett’s many-worlds theory offered an answer to Wheeler’s biggest question, “Why Existence?”. Among countless universes – each characterised by specific quantum states – our universe happened to experience right those states which eventually fostered intelligent life. Sterile universes vastly outnumber living ones but by definition they go unseen.

    Wheeler dispatched Everett to illustrate his many-worlds theory to Niels Bohr – founding father of the Copenhagen interpretation. The old guy was so unimpressed that legend has it he recommended Everett to pursue a different career altogether. Everett quit the academia to start a lucrative consulting business. Quantum uncertainty kept nonetheless shaping his worldview and eventually twisted his atheistic convictions into nihilism. He had asked to dispose of his ashes in a trashcan after his death – a final will his family duly executed.

    Right when the many-worlds theory started gaining consensus in the scientific community, Wheeler started distancing himself from it. The many-worlds theory implies the existence of at least 10^100 universes identical to ours but for few quantum states – and this ignoring radically different universes structured according to alien physical laws and mathematical structures. Wheeler looked for a more parsimonious answer to his question “Why existence?” and went back to the classic Copenhagen interpretation to find it.

    According to this interpretation, observation by itself determines the state of a quantum entity. When unobserved, a ray of light is neither a wave nor a particle – it is simultaneously both. All potential states coexist in a single world until observation nails them down into a single state. Expanding the Copenhagen interpretation, Wheeler argued that the universe as a whole is a quantum entity. Observations by intelligent beings make all the potential different states of the universe collapse into the very universe we experience. Observation becomes an act of creation.

    For geeks who want to learn more about this, they can immerse themselves in the mind-bending pages of the “Goldilock Enigma” – Davies is the most articulated advocate of Wheeler’s views.

    For sceptics smelling some theistic whiff in Wheeler and Davies’ theories, their suspicions are understandable. Davies received the Templeton Prize in 1995, the richest prize in science bar none, awarded to scientists whose “discoveries expand the human perceptions of divinity”. No doubt Everett would have been proud to reject such a distinction.

    For my part, I see the parallel lives of Everett and Davies as further evidence of the utter pluralism of quantum mechanics: two guys exposed to the same theory by the same mentor, reaching opposite views on nature and meaning.

  2. Ciao Paola! I was there too and I must say I didn’t enjoy the show too much. But maybe that’s because I was in the front-row, with no possibility to watch the screen and the left case beating in my right ear… Can you remember the drumming solo? Well, I’ve started crying… no need to say I’m not a very emotional guy ;-(

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