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.