“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” and the Many-Worlds Theory

August 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”

For someone with zero background in physics, I’ve developed quite an interest in quantum mechanics via the Many-Worlds Theory. Given its frequent appearance in literature and film, how could I not?

The Many-Worlds Theory was invented by the Princeton physicist Hugh Everett III, who published his dissertation in 1957. Like the Bohr model and Schrödinger Equation that preceded it, MWT explains the wave-like properties of protons and electrons, but it diverges in important ways: where Bohr and Schrödinger envisioned duality, Everett saw an infinite branching of outcomes. In Everett’s view, each event creates a split, and therefore a parallel universe, each with its own reality. His hypothesis is supported by physics: just as atoms can be in two places at once, so could everything made up of atoms, including us.

Hugh Everett III

Though Everett’s theory was met with derision by Bohr and others for most of his lifetime (he died in 1982, at 51, having left academia to work in the defense and financial industries), it has gradually gained acceptance among theoretical physicists. Today the Many-Worlds Theory is taught and written about in universities, but its greater significance might be in popular culture. Decades after its controversial beginnings, Everett’s work has become a major theme of novels and films.

I first saw it illustrated in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1991 film, “The Double Life of Veronique.” Two identical women, one French and one Polish, both musicians, sense each other’s existence throughout their lives. Though their paths almost cross in Krakow on a single occasion, when Veronique inadvertently captures Veronika in a photo, they never meet. Nonetheless, as Veronique says, “All my life I’ve felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time.”

Anyone who has wondered how life might have turned out on the road not taken has felt the possibily of parallel worlds. In Bruce Wagner’s 1996 novel, I’m Losing You, the agent Donny Ribkin runs into his ex-girlfriend and experiences a Many-Worlds reverie:

It was two years since the breakup, but their life together–for him–continued on a parallel, spectral track. He watched….as shadow-Donny and shadow-Katherine went about their daily couple-life: saw them vacation and marry, go to movies, buy a house….Their love continued to grow the way nails were said to grow on a corpse.

In the 1998 film, “Sliding Doors,” the world is split by the closing of a train door in the London Underground. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s character misses the train home, her life hurtles away from the one she would have lived if she had caught the train. Though two stories proceed with some similarities, they never converge.

Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which I’ve so far seen three times. Its daring counterfactual ending is so fitting and just that it renders the real events of August 8-9, 1969 fantastical, an unreal nightmare. Whether or not he intended to illustrate Everettian physics, Tarantino has perfectly explained the Many-Worlds Theory: a single event sets into motion a series of others, moving reality onto a different track.

It was in the early 2000’s, considerably after I’d seen its depiction in art, that I learned of the existence of the Many-Worlds Theory. My gateway into quantum mechanics wasn’t film but music: specifically, that of the band Eels, whose frontman (and only full-time member) is Mark Oliver Everett, Hugh Everett’s son. The 2007 documentary “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” follows Mark as he talks about his father’s life and work with physicists, both his father’s former colleagues and current faculty members at Princeton, one of whom is visibly moved to meet his mentor’s son.

The Many-Worlds Theory asserts that time is not an arrow but a fork, branching endlessly. . Because of art,  it now enjoys widespread acceptance even among people like me, for whom math and physics were baffling, off-putting subjects. I hope that in some parallel universe, Hugh Everett is pleased.

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