Doctoral dissertation and first publication of his formulation of quantum mechanics (1957)

On March 1, 1957, Everett submitted his 36-page doctoral dissertation, "On the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics", in a footnote to which he writes that it would be too much to hope that the revised wording avoids every misunderstanding or ambiguity [37]. Bryce DeWitt later published [44] the background of how Wheeler sat down with Everett and told him precisely what to omit from the manuscript of 1956. So when the article "'Relative State' Formulation of Quantum Mechanics" [45] was published, there was published with it an assessment by Wheeler [46]. This article of Everett's differed from his 1957 dissertation only by minor stylistic changes. In comparison with the 1956 paper, however, it is practically new text (no more than 20-30 percent of the texts coincide and the sequence of parts differs). Fortunately, DeWitt, known for his refined courtesy, found time to shed additional light on this history. He has stated that Everett himself re-wrote the "large" thesis (Urwerk) into a "small" one based on Wheeler's instructions. Wheeler, according to DeWitt, was motivated in part by his wish not to spoil his relations with Bohr [38].

John Wheeler, in his autobiography [24a, copy kindly provided by Kenneth Ford on behalf of John Wheeler], provides more evidence about this story. On pp. 268-271, Wheeler recalls that he could sense the depth of Everett's dissertation (the draft version of January 1956, the version that DeWitt later called the Urwerk), yet "found the draft barely comprehensible. I knew that if I had that much trouble with it, other faculty members on his committee would have even more trouble. They not only would find it incomprehensible; they might find it without merit. So Hugh and I worked long hours at night in my office to revise the draft. Even after that effort, I decided the thesis needed a companion piece, which I prepared for publication with his paper. My real intent was to make his thesis more digestible to his other committee members". [24a, p. 268] (This interaction with Everett came just after Wheeler's extremely productive period, 1954-56, when he achieved some of his most important results, including the ideas of geons-which were never accepted by Einstein-and of quantum foam. [24a, pp. 237-263])

On March 10, 1957, Everett and Wheeler started to dispatch preprints of their articles, and during the next two days Everett participated in a large conference on game theory at Princeton [22]. In a copy of their mailing list it is marked that answers came from Petersen, Groenewald, and Norbert Wiener [47]. (In the cover letter it is mentioned that the articles are intended for publication in Reviews of Modern Physics as part of the Proceedings of "the recent Chapel Hill Conference." That conference, on the subject of "The Role of Gravitation in Modern Physics," was held at the beginning of March at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Among the conference participants was Richard Feynman [48], but, according to the conference organizer, Cecile DeWitt-Morette, Everett did not attend [49].)

On April 15 1957, Everett formally presented his dissertation for defense. Wheeler and his faculty colleague V. Bargmann wrote in their assessment that Everett's formulation of the problem and his solution were almost completely original, and suggested that the thesis "may be a significant contribution to our understanding of the foundations of quantum theory." Accordingly, they recommended acceptance of the dissertation [50]. The oral examination took place on April 23. The principal examiners-Wheeler, Bargmann, H. W. Wyld, and R. H. Dicke-concluded: "The candidate passed a very good examination. He dealt with a very difficult subject and defended his conclusions firmly, clearly, and logically. He shows marked mathematical ability, keenness in logic analyses, and a high ability to express himself well." [51].


Previous | Next