Schrodinger’s Cat: The Practical Guide to Radioactive Felines

If you dislike cats, you’ll love Schrodinger’s Cat. I guarantee it.

You see, Schrodinger’s cat is locked inside of a sealed box. Inside the box is a radioactive element, a Geiger counter, and either some poison or perhaps some type of explosive. Schrodinger was a twisted thought scientist because he deigned to rig this setup in such a way that when (or if) the radioactive element decayed at some random time, it would trigger the Geiger counter, which would, in turn, release the poison or launch the feline-seeking Hellfire missile.

Before you get too upset with Schrodinger, know this whole thing was a concocted story to be used as a teaching aid, arguably to put physicists he disagreed with to shame, ideally making them realize their theories were preposterous. Or not. Because quantum physics is really weird stuff, and no one agrees on much of anything.

Quantum physics obscura

So, without going completely off the rails (The Practical Guide to Life promises practical knowledge AND brevity), part of quantum theory claims that particles can exist in a superposition of states at the same time. Positive and negative. Hot and cold. Democrat and Republican. Only when interacting with other particles do they “collapse” into a single state.

So, to apply a digestible analogy, imagine you’re a particle sitting on your couch, and at the same time, you’re both eating Brown Sugar & Cinnamon Pop-Tarts and not eating Brown Sugar & Cinnamon Pop-Tarts. It’s only when your spouse enters the room, smacking you upside the head and asking why you’re not mowing the lawn, that you collapse into a single state of either snacking or not snacking—but not both.

I know, even with the Pop-Tart analogy, this is heady stuff. That’s why professional physicists have unkempt hair. They’re too confused by their own theories to remember to comb. #Fact.

Philosophy and observation

Quite by accident, my Pop-Tarts analogy is kind of on target for the point of this whole cat story. You see, these superposition theories kind of drift into the philosophical world, where it’s the act of observation by an observer that causes the particle in a state of superposition to collapse to a single state. Or, in your case, it’s the act of your spouse walking into the room and seeing what’s going on that creates the single state of you either eating or not eating the Pop-Tart. If he or she hadn’t walked in, you’d blissfully be both eating and not eating indefinitely. Physicists call this the observer’s paradox. Wild huh?

Alive or dead? Why not both?

Following this quantum logic, the cat in the box (remember, it’s sealed, so none of us know what’s really going on in there) could be alive or dead at any given nanosecond. Or, because quantum physics is crazy stuff, the cat is both alive and dead—a state of superposition in both meowing and non-meowing states.

As this thought experiment goes, it’s the act of opening the box to see what’s going on that causes the cat to collapse to a single state of either being perfectly alive or quite dead.

The point of Schrodinger’s cat

Schrodinger was a smart guy, and I don’t know if he disliked cats, but his “thought experiment” was not actually performed in a lab unless some overeager undergrad completely misinterpreted his lecture back in the 1930s. His purpose in concocting this scenario was to point out his belief in the fallacy of the observer causing the collapse of a particle from a superposition state to a single state.

Of course, nothing is ever simple, so while a superposition-state cat, both dead and alive, is beyond our comprehension, the behavior does seem to happen with certain subatomic particles. The gotcha is what causes the collapse into a single state. That’s an argument for a new day, and lots of very smart quantum physicists have lots of diverse opinions on the matter.

As a sneak preview, one school of thought leads us to the “many worlds interpretation,” which essentially states the universe splits into two diverging worlds upon opening the cat box, one where the cat is alive and the other where the cat is dead. Imagine that happening every time you’re eating Pop-Tarts.

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