I am thinking about the sadness of Hugh Everett III. As a brilliant Princeton postgrad student, he dreamed up the Many Worlds hypothesis, with the help of “a few sloshes of sherry” and brainy joshing from his contemporaries. He aspired to reconcile quantum mechanics and classical physics. The basic question he posed was: If an atom can be two places at once, why can’t we?
In the quantum field, it seems that a particle can be any number of places at the same time – until the act of observation fixes one quantum event out of a multitude of probable events. But our normal experience of physical reality, on the human or macro scale, is quite different. Hugh Everett’s bold proposition was that quantum effects are at work in every part of the universe, on every scale, all the time. We don’t notice this because our universe is constantly splitting. Any move we make, any breath we take, generates a new universe. In the moment we observe such things – in the quantum field or in a city street – we generate a parallel universe in which a parallel observer is either not looking or looking in a different way.
“We live in an infinite number of continually interacting universes,” Everett proposed. “All possible futures really happen.”
His 1957 dissertation, advancing this thesis through very hard mathematics, was a huge challenge to the greatest minds in physics. Niels Bohr dismissed it. Many top scientists in that era were reluctant to entertain the idea that quantum weirdness might be going on everywhere, and in every aspect of our lives.
Finding himself rejected, Everett applied his talents to work on advance weapons targeting for the Pentagon and then to making some money as a defense contractor. He was subject to deep recurring bouts of depression. He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, drank like a fish, and died from a heart attack at 51. In a NOVA television program, his son Mark – the lead singer for the rock group the Eels – goes in search of his emotionally distant, almost unknown father, and we feel the full sadness of a beautiful mind that allowed its essential work to be interrupted by rejection.
The first time Mark could recall ever touching his father – he said on camera – was when he found him dead in bed. Hugh Everett was an atheist who did not believe in the survival of the soul, though he did believe that you can die in any number of parallel universes and go on living in any number of other parallel universes, a kind of quantum longevity, if not immortality. He directed that his remains should be thrown on the trash. After keeping his ashes in a file cabinet for a few years, his widow followed his instructions.
His sadness, and his burial wishes, were communicable. After several attempts at suicide, his daughter Elizabeth succeeded in killing herself with an overdose of sleeping pills fifteen year after his death. She said in her suicide note that she wished her ashes to be thrown out with the garbage so that she might "end up in the correct parallel universe to meet up w[ith] Daddy".
Today, the Many Worlds theory has a huge following in the scientific community, and talk of parallel universes endlessly splitting from each other is commonplace. Chances are you’ll find a television documentary on this on some channel any given night.
Hugh Everett III, the founder of the theory, fell victim to a yawning gap between theory and practice. He saw the multiverse as a fantastic garden of endlessly forking paths, but appears never to have explored the possibility that we can move from one path to another. The concept of jumping between parallel worlds has been popularized in recent films and television series, and in fiction. Would your life be altogether different is you missed – or caught – that subway train? That is brilliantly explored in the movie “Sliding Doors.” Could intentional travel between parallel universes threaten the survival of one or both? That is one of the questions dramatized in the excellent scifi series “Fringe”. Can quantum leaps, on the human scale, take you across time as well as space, and are there enforcers who try to limit this kind of thing and keep the world oblivious to it? These are themes that are brilliantly explored in Ian McDonald’s novel Brasyl, set in Brazil in the present, in the 1700s, in the 2030s and in spaces in between.
I am still thinking about the sadness of that beautiful mind known as Hugh Everett.
In one or many of the parallel universes he envisioned, he was not struck down by drink and depression at 51. He found ways to recruit the supporters he needed to spur him to go forward with his work on the Many Worlds. He experimented with ways to slip between parallel life tracks and bring together his own best qualities, as developed in other universes. And that changed everything, again and again and again.
A couple of nights ago, I lay down with such thoughts in my mind. I made it my intention to reach to one of more parallel selves who were not suffering the severe cold symptoms and fatigue I had been experiencing since rushing to England and back in three days over New Years for the funeral of a close friend.
I woke a couple of hours later, full of juice, with memories of exciting travels across Central Europe, from Rusava in the Czech Republic all the way to Ufa, deep in Russia. I traveled across time as well as space. I met characters from the era of World War II. I came back charged with energy and excitement.
I have not been to any of these places in my current universe, though I do teach and travel in Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic. I did once write an historical spy novel, Carnival of Spies, involving the Comintern and intrigues (in Germany and Brazil) in the 1930s. I planned to write a sequel involving secret operations during World War II – but then I made radical changes in my life, and that scenario, and much else, was consigned to parallel realities.
I was curious to understand what exactly Parallel Robert was doing in Ufa? Was that
I think my intention for dreaming was answered, exactly though unexpectedly. I entered the parallel life and imagination of a Robert who remained a bestselling novelist, researching and writing a series of pretty good historical espionage novels. He seemed to be really enjoying himself doing that stuff, and some of his excitement stayed with me, making a bright start to the day.
I wish Hugh Everett had learned this trick, rather than accepting that when a parallel universe splits off, it is no longer accessible. But then, in who knows how many parallel universes, he is not only a quantum mechanic, but a quantum pilot.
In this multidimensional universe, we are connected to many counterpart personalities living in other times, other probable realities, other dimensions. According to the choices that we make and the dramas that we live, we sometimes come closer to them. Sometimes we step through an opening between the worlds, an interdimensional membrane, and our parallel lives, with their issues and their gifts and their karma, are joined.
Active Dreaming gives us tools to explore these themes experientially and bring gifts and lessons from parallel realities to help us in our everyday lives.