Hartley: Undead cats and other stuff I don’t get
September 29, 2014
I accidentally wandered into a story for which my feeble brain was ill-prepared the other day when I saw a link bearing the heading "Brian Cox: 'Multiverse' makes sense." Thinking it might be the name of a new strip club that volatile former Dolphins, Bears, Jets, Patriots and Saints linebacker Brian Cox was thinking of opening, I clicked on the link.
Alas, it was not a story about a new club. It was a story about quantum mechanics. That would have been OK if the Brian Cox I was thinking of was the Brian Cox in question. I think that particular Brian Cox's musings on the multiverse would be tremendously entertaining. But it wasn't that Brian Cox. It was some geeky physicist from England.
The very first sentence of the story read, "The presenter and physicist Brian Cox says he supports the idea that many universes can exist at the same time." That should have been a red flag for me right there. I should have read that, realized I was headed for the deep end of the mental pool and bailed out when I had the chance. But I didn't. I read on.
That is how, a few paragraphs later, I stumbled upon a reference to Schrodinger's cat, a feline locked in a box that is supposedly alive and dead at the same time. And then my brain exploded.
Here's the idea behind Schrodinger's cat, which stems from a thought experiment proposed by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger: The cat is sealed in a box with a Geiger counter and a tiny bit of radioactive material. Over the course of an hour, one of the radioactive atoms may or may not decay. If it does, it will trigger a reaction that will break open a flask of hydrocyanic acid, which will kill the cat.
If you read this column regularly, you may be aware of my feelings for my own cat, and if you know how I feel about my cat, you'll understand why I was at least intrigued by the idea of Schrodinger's cat. I'm not saying it's OK to poison cats — it's not; it's animal cruelty — and I'm not saying I want to poison my cat. I'm just saying I would find it very selfless of him if he were to volunteer for the experiment.
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But here's the thing: There never actually was a Schrodinger's cat. Apparently, the whole experiment exists only in the mind. Hypothetically, at any given moment, that cat could be alive or dead, but since you can't observe it, you don't know which it is. You know that the cat will be dead eventually, but when you open the box an hour later, if an atom hasn't decayed, you'll still have a living cat. Surprise!
I have no idea why Schrodinger took that to mean that the cat was dead and alive at the same time. I think even an infant could tell you whether you have a living or deceased feline when you open the box. If the cat is dead, it just means that at some point it died. Before that it was alive; afterward, not so much. But I fail to see how it was alive and dead simultaneously.
I also fail to see how cats in boxes prove that there are multiple universes. I believe there are multiple universes, mind you, and I hope that in some of them I get to be not covered in body hair. But what that has to do with Schrodinger's idea is beyond me.
Like I said, though, the story was too deep for my limited faculties despite Cox's assertion that "it's a simpler version of quantum mechanics. It's quantum mechanics without wave function collapse."
No wave function collapse? Well, then any idiot should be able to understand it. Curse this stupid I'm with!
I have a theory that the real genius of smart people lies in saying things that sound so outrageously intelligent that the rest of us nitwits never question them. This is especially true of astrophysicists and quantum physicists, who get to say things that are impossible to disprove, far-fetched as they might seem.
And so it goes with Schrodinger. We can't disprove his hypothesis because hopefully no one will be so cruel as to subject a real cat to the proposed experiment.
Of course, if someone feels like trying the experiment and they're very persuasive, they're welcome to see if they can talk my cat into it.
Todd Hartley, "Schrodinger's couch potato," is often alive and dead while watching golf on TV. To read more or leave a comment, please visit http://zerobudget.net.