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Decoherent histories, realms (Part 1)


Working on quantum mechanics, the work of Everett
Murray Gell-Mann Scientist
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In '63…'64 I worked on trying to understand quantum mechanics, and I brought in Felix Villars and for a while some comments... there were some comments by Dick Feynman who was nearby. And we all agreed on a rough understanding of quantum mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics and so on and so on, that was not really very different from what I'd been working on in the last ten or fifteen years. I was not aware, and I don't think Felix was aware either, of the work of Everett when he was a graduate student at Princeton and worked on this, what some people have called 'many worlds' idea, suggested more or less by Wheeler. Apparently Everett was, as we learned at the Massagon [sic] meeting, Everett was an interesting person. He… it wasn't that he was passionately interested in quantum mechanics; he just liked to solve problems, and trying to improve the understanding of quantum mechanics was just one problem that he happened to look at. He spent most of the rest of his life working for the Weapon System Evaluation Group in Washington, WSEG, on military problems. Apparently he didn't care much as long as he could solve some interesting problems! Anyway, I didn't know about Everett's work so we discovered our interpretation independent of Everett. Now maybe Feynman knew about… about Everett's work and when he was commenting maybe he was drawing upon his knowledge of Everett, I have no idea, but… but certainly Felix and I didn't know about it, so we recreated something related to it. Now, as interpreted by some people, Everett's work has two peculiar features: one is that this talk about many worlds and equally… many worlds equally real, which has confused a lot of people, including some very scholarly students of quantum mechanics. What does it mean, 'equally real'? It doesn't really have any useful meaning. What the people mean is that there are many histories of the… many alternative histories of the universe, many alternative course-grained, decoherent histories of the universe, and the theory treats them all on an equal footing, except for their probabilities. Now if that's what you mean by equally real, okay, but that's all it means; that the theory treats them on an equal footing apart from their probabilities. Which one actually happens in our experience, is a different matter and it's determined only probabilistically. Anyway, there's considerable continuity between the thoughts of '63-'64 and the thoughts that, and… and maybe earlier in the ‘60s, and the thoughts that Jim Hartle and I have had more recently, starting around '84-'85.

New York-born physicist Murray Gell-Mann is known for his creation of the eightfold way, an ordering system for subatomic particles, comparable to the periodic table. His discovery of the omega-minus particle filled a gap in the system, brought the theory wide acceptance and led to Gell-Mann's winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969.

Listeners: Geoffrey West

Geoffrey West is a Staff Member, Fellow, and Program Manager for High Energy Physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is also a member of The Santa Fe Institute. He is a native of England and was educated at Cambridge University (B.A. 1961). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1966 followed by post-doctoral appointments at Cornell and Harvard Universities. He returned to Stanford as a faculty member in 1970. He left to build and lead the Theoretical High Energy Physics Group at Los Alamos. He has numerous scientific publications including the editing of three books. His primary interest has been in fundamental questions in Physics, especially those concerning the elementary particles and their interactions. His long-term fascination in general scaling phenomena grew out of his work on scaling in quantum chromodynamics and the unification of all forces of nature. In 1996 this evolved into the highly productive collaboration with James Brown and Brian Enquist on the origin of allometric scaling laws in biology and the development of realistic quantitative models that analyse the influence of size on the structural and functional design of organisms.

Tags: Princeton University, Weapon System Evaluation Group, Washington, Felix Villars, Dick Feynman, Hugh Everett III, John Archibald Wheeler, Jim Hartle

Duration: 3 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: October 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010