The Byrne Report

Byrne goes on Hiatus


Later Alligators

THIS COLUMN MARKS the 120th issue of “The Byrne Report.” During the past three years, I have written at length about war, casinos, patriarchy, graft, war, television, corruption, the death penalty, war, Harry Potter, the stupid media, the devil Bush and, finally, the age-old wisdom of permaculture. My reporting goal has been to pull the covers off the self-serving prevarications of conservatives, liberals and progressives alike, keeping in mind George Orwell’s observation that “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” I hope that, to some degree, I have provided respite from the stink borne by that ill wind, if only by blowing hard against it.

I am going on an extended leave of absence from writing this column. In my smoking-gun files, there are dozens of stories I still want to write for the people of the North Bay, and I will grace these pages again. But for the near and middle future, I have to go off and write a book, and I cannot chew gum, do the column and write the book all at the same time.

The book is about multiple universes, mutually assured destruction and the meltdown of a nuclear family. It all started when a friend of mine told me that in the 1950s a man named Hugh Everett formulated a theory that solved the “measurement problem” in quantum mechanics. In short, the measurement problem arises because microscopic entities, such as electrons, exist in “superpositions” of possible positions and velocities. Yet when you measure, or interact with, a superposed electron, it assumes a definite position or velocity in space-time.

That definiteness does not follow from the mathematics used to describe the superposition. In other words, there is no logical reason why macroscopic objects—cannonballs, cups of coffee, human brains—are not viewed by us as existing in all possible states of being. In 1956, Everett resolved that contradiction mathematically, but his theory predicated the existence of uncountable numbers of disconnected universes in which trillions upon trillions of copies of you perform every action that probability pops up. Whew.

After it was published, Everett’s “many worlds” theory was pooh-poohed, and, bitter, he went to work for the Pentagon, taking a position calculating nuclear kill ratios. A heavy drinker and smoker, he died of a heart attack in 1982. Shortly thereafter, his theory was resurrected by quantum cosmologists. It is widely considered to be one of the most important discoveries in modern physics. This does not mean that all physicists believe they reside in multiple universes, but it does mean that Everett’s argument illuminates a way to view the quantum mechanics of the whole universe from inside without being able to see it from outside.

The American Institute of Physics funded me to research Everett’s life. I found a dozen boxes of Everett’s papers—not viewed since his death—stored in the basement of his son, Mark Oliver Everett, leader of the Los Angeles pop band Eels. The book I am writing is about the tragic trajectory of Everett’s family and the fate of his “many worlds” theory. It is also an account of top secret weapons research during the Cold War.

You can read about this in the upcoming December issue of Scientific American, which features my eight-page spread on this subject. In November, in the United Kingdom, BBC4 will air a new documentary, Parallel Worlds, that focuses on Everett. (I consulted with the BBC producers on the show, and I also appear in it wearing a fedora.) In July, I gave a talk on Everett’s work at the University of Oxford that was sponsored by the faculty of philosophy, and, recently, a similar talk at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. Of course I have to write a book!

But be warned, I will be keeping my North Bay files up to date, so don’t try to get away with anything, local bourgeoisie! And I will contribute the occasional guest column now and then; the only alternative to doing that would be prolonged tooth-grinding or exploding.

I want to thank the Bohemian for providing me with this forum, for sticking by me when certain outraged advertisers pulled their ads in response to truths and for never even once suggesting that I butch it down.

And, from my heart, I thank the loyal readers of the Bohemian—an oasis of sanity in a swamp of media lies, corporate-run wars and intellectual pollution—for allowing me to write for you.

See you around.


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