Thursday, 20 May 2010

Peter Byrne – Four Way Interview

Northern California-based journalist Peter Byrne has an uncanny ability to mine reportable nuggets of graft and corruption out of mountains of government and corporate records — not to mention human sources. His recent book The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family takes on a remarkable 20th century figure, his theories and his life.
Why science?
Science models the physical world, as based upon our experience, so that we can change the world with minimal effort. By that, I mean it is easier to draft engineering schematics for building a bridge, than to just start fitting pieces of steel together.
Science is also explanatory. On the one hand, the engineering plans for the Golden Gate bridge (near where I live in San Francisco) can tell me how the bridge works, but if I want to know why it works, I must study calculus and physics and chemistry, etc. My scientific quest will lead me to more fundamental models, such as the study of gravity (it keeps the bridge in place, eh?), and quantum mechanics (it binds the elements of the bridge together). And then I will find myself teetering on the edge of knowledge and speculation: looking for a theory of quantum gravity.
I am confident, by the way, that one day life forms (not necessarily humans) will construct a model of the universe that is as logical as the schematics for the Golden Gate Bridge. But it is unlikely that there will ever be an end to life’s quest for the ultimate model, simply because we (our senses, our brainpans) cannot interface with everything … and here is where philosophy intrudes.
Why this book?
As an investigative journalist (with a bent for the absurd), I initially began researching the material that became The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family because I thought Rolling Stone would buy a story about a rock singer with a weird physicist dad, (Everett’s son, Mark of the band Eels). Rolling Stone turned me down (too much “science,” the editor said), as did about a dozen other newsy-cultural magazines. So, almost as a joke I pitched it to the editors of Scientific American, and, remarkably, they commissioned me to write a profile of Everett III (not caring much about his rock singer son, or so they said). It turned out, though, that what makes both the article and the book work for many people is the emotional connection between the rock singer and his strange, brilliant, dead father.
Anyway, I had to learn something about quantum mechanics (not being mathematical, I concentrated on its history and interpretation). And I found a lot of new material about the Cold War in various archives, research that was necessary because—Everett had made his living designing the targeting algorithms for World War Fini. And the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll parts wrote themselves.
One thing lead to another and one day, I had an actual science book weighing down my hands. Its shocking, really. Don’t quite understand how it happened. And, some days, if it happened at all.
What’s next?
I am curating Everett’s scientific papers, which I found in his son’s basement in some cardboard boxes. Princeton University Press has commissioned myself and Prof. Jeff Barrett, of the Dept. of Logic & the Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, to put together an annotated collection of Everett’s works. We are also putting scans of his work, including handwritten drafts of the original thesis about multiple universes on line, with support from the National Science Foundation. Perhaps some enterprising physicists will read the old drafts and figure out some of the loose ends in Everett’s theory.
I think the story about Everett will make a great feature film, too.
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I have been doing some investigative work, exposing corrupt practices in government, industry, academia etc. That pays the bills. But I am now hooked on the philosophy of science, mostly foundational physics, and I’d like to write a readable book on how the “furniture of the world” (as the philosophers say) is represented in science.
But, since you asked about “excitement,” I am excited to be alive and thriving in our world, even though that is dying carbon atom by carbon atom.
However, if I believed in the Many Worlds Theory (and I do not see any reason to demand the existence of only one universe!), then I would feel better about reality, since if everything that is physically possible occurs, as Everett maintained, then things are looking up … somewhere.

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