A cat, a box, a bug and me

By Chuck Sigars | Feb 29, 2012

So. Schrödinger had this cat.

Erwin Schrödinger was a theoretical physicist, and this was a theoretical cat. For the record.

It was a thought experiment, an activity physicists in the early 20th century engaged in a lot. They would imagine hypothetical situations under perfect conditions, extrapolate and theorize and pretend to their heart’s content, and then they’d all get together and discuss these experiments with great passion. You know the type.

Take a box, said Schrödinger. Construct a diabolical mechanism, a Rube Goldberg device triggered by a small piece of radioactive material. Given the nature of such things, eventually an atom of this material would decay. Might take an hour, might take longer, might take less time, nobody knows. But when it decayed – in this imaginary, ideal situation – it would lead to the release of cyanide gas.

Now put a cat in the box, close the lid, and think.

I’m thinking the cat didn’t consider the situation all that ideal.

But here’s the question Schrödinger posed: What’s the state of the cat, over time, with the lid remaining closed and no way to know what’s going on with that pesky decayed-or-not atom?

For those of us not theoretical physicists, it’s simple. We think of two things.

1) Dude. What did that cat ever do to you? And

2) The cat is either alive or dead.

Again. No actual cats were harmed. Sheesh. Cat people. Chill.

Schrödinger was just taking the new quantum mechanics that everybody was yakking about to its illogical conclusion, which would be that, in fact, the state of the cat couldn’t be known without observation, and was, in fact again, a statistic, a wave form of probability.

According to a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, the cat was sorted of smeared all over the inside of the box, neither alive or dead. Messy though.

Enough of quantum theory, which I will never truly grasp, although I try. And enough of theoretical physicists, for that matter.

Except to note that some of them, including Schrödinger and particularly Einstein, were bothered by all this talk of mathematical possibilities and uncertainty and discontinuity, etc.

This is reality, they thought. They wanted a connection between the quantum atomic world and the classical physics of Newton, where an apple fell to the ground and didn’t just hang in mid-air in a state of probability. This sort of thinking drove Einstein right up the wall.

And we can imagine he would have gone ballistic, in his Einstein way, had he lived just a few years longer to see the “many worlds” concept begin to take off, the idea that uncountable little choices spin off into multiple universes and timelines; in one the cat is dead, in the other the cat is alive, and so on.

Once again: There was no cat.

This is what’s really on my mind. Not quantum physics, although that’s fun to think about sometimes. But probability? We know all about it.

Probability is what buckles the seatbelt. Probability makes us reach for the dental floss, look both ways, save money, and clean the gutters (although that last one can be theoretical, in my case).

And probability is what’s behind that flu shot we’re supposed to get every year. Using statistical analysis and other fancy words, scientists design a vaccine for the strains of influenza we’re most likely to encounter in the coming flu season. All we have to do is get one.

Here’s where theory and practice meet up in a dark alley. In order for a flu vaccine to be effective against these probable flu strains, a person has to actually GET a flu shot.

To be fair: It’s possible I didn’t even have the flu last week, just a random virus doing a flu imitation. Whatever it was, though, it met my single criterion for at least pretending I have the flu, which is that for every degree of temperature elevation, my IQ drops 50 points. And I need all the points I have.

During the worst part, I was relegated to lying in a recliner, feebly waving my arms in a futile attempt to get one of my family members to kill me, and watching PBS science shows.

One of them was about quantum physics. I think. My brain was working overtime just to keep my heart beating by that point.

I have nothing against flu shots. I’m not scared of needles. I can sort of grasp statistics and probability. I don’t think I have a superpower that prevents me from getting sick.

I just don’t do it. I should. I don’t. And I paid the price.

In the interest of public health, then, let me be an object lesson. There are worse things than flu shots. One of them, in fact, is the flu.

Or whatever it was.

And there was no cat. Did I mention that? Pretty sure I did.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Lee A Shobe | Mar 02, 2012 19:09

Mr. Chuck I sign on line to read the weekly Beacon for two reasons: to read how the Mayor's personal assistant is faring (not as much on that lately) and to read your column. I will continue to sign on to read your column even if the new Mayor fails to produce any tabloid journalism highlights. Mayors come and go but you are a consistent bright light.

Posted by: Chuck Sigars | Mar 04, 2012 09:13

Thanks Lee!  I'm not sure anyone has ever described me as bright, but I'll take what I can get.


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