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  • Asked on September 26, 2018 in Social Science.

    There are a good few candidates. Max Planck, who had his life ripped apart and his son murdered by the Nazi regime. Or Ludwig Boltzmann, who committed suicide in a fit of depression, just as his theories were winning out against long-term opposition.

    But I’m going to nominate Hugh Everett, the originator of the Everett, or “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    Everett’s tragedies were largely self-inflicted. He was a brilliant student; in his first year at graduate school he published a paper on “Recursive Games” that John Nash considered extraordinary, and is now thought of as a classic of game theory. He studied quantum mechanics with Eugene Wigner, and wrote his PhD thesis under the guidance of John Wheeler, where he laid out his then new “relative state” interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    But even as a student, Everett was addicted to alcohol, food and tobacco, and he could not afford to indulge these whims on a junior academic salary. So even before his thesis had been accepted, he landed a job in operations research at the Pentagon, ignoring Wheeler’s pleas to come to Copenhagen, and talk about his quantum mechanical ideas with Niels Bohr.

    Everett’s later work is almost all classified, but the fragments that have now been published give an idea of what he spent his life doing. These analyses are on kill ratios in the outcomes of nuclear war — how many would live and die in each stage of nuclear exchanges; and whether the US or Russia would be able to absorb more casualties. Later, Everett led the team that programmed the SIOP computers that would have launched the missiles to wipe out much of the population of Europe. They went operational in 1962.

    Everett suffered from depression his whole life, and it’s difficult to think that his work helped this. In any case, his depressive episodes got worse, as did his addictions. He had married his wife Nancy in graduate school, but he continued womanising and seeing prostitutes, while growing obese and becoming more and more of an alcoholic. Nancy repeatedly cheated on him in return.

    He was never very commercially successful. Some of the methods that he came up with: “attribute value” algorithms and the generalised Lagrange multiplier method, were later adopted widely and made millionaires of his colleagues. But Everett himself was never able to fully capitalise on his insights, and his spending more than matched his income. Towards the end of his life, he was verging on bankruptcy.

    But greatest harm Everett caused was to his family. Somehow he never felt able to show affection to his children: Elizabeth and Mark, both of whom openly craved his love.

    Elizabeth first attempted suicide in 1982. Mark found her unconscious on the bathroom floor, and got her to hospital just in time. When he returned home that night, he remembers his father looking up from his newspaper and saying mildly, “I didn’t know she was that sad”.

    Everett himself died just a month later, at 51, of a heart attack brought on by his obesity and unhealthy lifestyle. Mark — then 19 — was the one who found his father’s body, and as he felt for a pulse, realised that it was the first time he could remember touching him.

    In 1996, Elizabeth succeeded in her latest suicide attempt, after being institutionalised for some years and undergoing electroshock therapy. She left a note, saying she wanted to join her father in another universe.

    Two years later, Nancy died of lung cancer, almost certainly due to second-hand smoke from her husband.

    Mark Everett is still around. In fact, you have probably heard of him. He usually goes just by “E” and in 1995, he formed a band, where he serves as the front-man and driving force: The Eels.

    In recent years, Mark has opened up more about his father, and has given historians of science access to the family’s papers. He even uses his real name from time to time.

    So, if you have ever wondered where a song like “Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor”, or indeed an album title like “Electro-Shock Blues” comes from … that’s where.

    One of the things that turned up in Mark’s recent looks through his family boxes is a 1977 dictaphone recording of his father talking to Charles Misner, an old college friend and expert on General Relativity. This is eerie for historians of physics to listen to, because in 1954, it was a drunken conversation between a much younger Everett and Misner that gave Everett the first ideas that he went on to develop into Many Worlds.

    In the recording, the two are reminiscing about old times, while in the background, you can hear Mark practising on the drums.

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