Rock star son’s quest to learn more about quantum physicist dad

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, a recent PBS/Nova episode rocked my world recently. (my S.O. tivos Nova, and kept this episode for me). Mark Everett (the E of the band Eels) goes on a quest to understand more about Hugh Everett (his dad) and dad’s radical theory of quantum physics.

The musician son who didn’t inherit dad’s math gene seeks to learn about the remarkable theory his dad dreamed up.

[from the show’s about page:] “My father never, ever said anything to me about his theories,” Mark says. “I was in the same house with him for at least 18 years, but he was a total stranger to me. He was in his own parallel universe. He was a physical presence, like the furniture, sitting there jotting down crazy notations at the dining room table night after night. I think he was deeply disappointed that he knew he was a genius but the rest of the world didn’t know it.”

Mark Everett jokingly admits that he can barely tabulate a restaurant tip, let alone understand his father’s complex ideas. While Hugh focused on science, Mark focused on music. He mastered the piano, drums, and guitar, and became an accomplished songwriter. In addition to writing material for their award-winning albums, EELS contributed songs to movie soundtracks, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the three animated Shrek films.

Fabulous animation, excellent sound track, excellent commentary by the wry hipster son. I was grinning as I watched, because this show was a smashing success on so many levels:

The personal quest. The son seeks to learn about his father. Even though the father was physically present, he was mentally and psychologically remote to his son. He visits Dad’s colleagues to learn more about who his father was. So yeah, insofar as it takes place in a documentary film setting, there’s oral history there.

What is quantum mechanics? What is this parallel universe theory? And how in blazes do you convey such a thing for a mass audience? I suppose the portion of the show devoted to hard science was maybe 25%—maybe. But it was well done. (kudos to the stop motion animators!). And having the math-challenged son be the “eyes” through which the entire audience understands works very well. Plus, there’s the commentary and self-awareness: Mark comments, “I think I’m beginning to understand some of this. Scary”—as though he can’t believe that he’s actually comprehending something about his Dad’s work.

This show was a stunningly perfect example of what Robert Krulwich told the graduating class at the most recent Caltech commencement address: “So, when someone asks you, ‘What have you been working on?’ Tell a story.”real videopdf, blogged excerpts. The theory itself is couched in a larger story, the story of a son’s quest for his father. And what emerges is the parallels of their lives—as far as the physics world was concerned (perhaps a little too late), the father was a rockstar. As the son now is.

Nice visual and auditory touches. The video camera helps illustrate the story, with motion images that say “parallel lives”. There’s a sweet “split path” sequence, accompanied by Mark’s ironic commentary. After one part of him stays home, and another part “leaves” on this quest to talk to his father’s work, resulting in one or more of those leaps of understanding, the Mark-on-the-road has a zinging comment about the parallel-universed Mark-at-home. Delicious.

There are a couple of segments that deal with archived materials, as Mark looks through the boxes of his father’s possessions. Does this old tape recorder work anymore? Music and audio geekery is nice: “I’ll get my roadie on this,” Mark says of a voice recording tape that does not work. Mark visits the boxes in the basement with his father’s biographer, too. We get to see the boxes from the perspective of the son, and from the perspective of the historian.

Oh, and did I mention the sound track? The EELS. Another great “sound” and speech moment takes place during a thunderstorm.

Though you can directly view many past episodes of Nova online, for some reason, you can’t with this one. You can buy the video/DVD, though. And, presumably, add it to your Netflix queue.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 10, 2008 in • Documentary FilmsPersonal History
1 CommentsPermalink

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Comments

This is a wonderful article.

Cycle Trader  on 11/24  at  07:16 PM

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