Re-interpreting Copenhagen | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Nov 27, 2016

I am waiting for a cat.

Erwin Schrödinger's cat, to be exact. I first heard of the paradox of Schrödinger's cat being both alive and dead when I was in college (and on “Doctor Who”). Granted, I did not study quantum mechanics, but political science and economics, so I did not understand the role the cat played in the much larger Copenhagen Interpretation.

My poor attempt at an explanation of this concept (nicknamed as it is only because the work was done in a laboratory in Copenhagen) is that all of the possible conditions of a quantum system (atoms, molecules, or subatomic particles), everything that can be known about it, and even all its potential for the future, exist simultaneously until measured.

However, since the system does not have quantifiable properties until then, the act of measurement affects the conditions of the system and, potentially, the outcomes.

All possibilities can exist at the same time, so there are dual, or blurred realities, making it difficult, and potentially naïve, to predict an outcome because it depends on when and how a scientist makes the observation.


In trying to explain this to people in the 1920s, Schrödinger suggested we think of a box. Inside the box are a cat, radioactive material and a bottle of poison. We do not know if the radioactive material has decayed and caused the poison to kill the cat, or not.

Is the cat alive or dead?

Schrödinger says the cat is alive and dead until we open the box since we have not yet observed it, but when and how we do makes all the difference. If we open box reveals a live cat, the cat will only remember being alive, even though he or she was, in theory, both alive and dead.

An expanded view of the Copenhagen Interpretation, the many-worlds theory argues that two realities are created before the box is open, so once it is, the two realities still exist simultaneously, one with a dead cat and one alive.

Consequently, every time a different condition is possible within a system and a choice made at that point in time, a new reality is created. So in this existence, I was grumpy this morning but am still dutifully working at my laptop. I am also taking a hike because my mood required that I call in sick.

I can only start to imagine all of the moments in time that the when and how we assessed the conditions on the ground changed our future reality. What if there had not been a deep freeze and snowstorm when George Washington crossed the Delaware, making the attack impossible in the analysis of the British?

It has been said that the Brexit vote would have skewed the other way if it had occurred a few days earlier or later, due to changing opinions of the Prime Minister and stories in the news. The same can be said about our own recent U.S. election.

For years, the thought experiment about Schrödinger’s cat depressed me.

I did not want to imagine the possibility that the cat is not alive when I open the box. (And why would anyone put a cat in a box with a nuclear device?)

These days, however, I wait for Erwin’s cat with some hope. We cannot know how someone is going to fulfill his duty until he does because all options are still possible … unless the cat is already out of the box.


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