MARTHA SEZ: Boxed cats and parallel worlds

Today we will be discussing Schrodinger’s cat.

There are many entertaining and heartwarming photographs and videos featuring cats on social media, some of which I myself have contributed, and so you, the reader, may well assume this is where we are going. The antics of people’s pets can be very entertaining. Actually not, though.

No, we will explore the quantum physics thought experiment “Schrodinger’s cat,” which I must warn you is very difficult.

The first point of difficulty with Schrodinger’s cat is the accent mark that is supposed to be over the o in Schrodinger, namely the two little dots, which I am going to look up now.

All right, is this accent mark — the two little dots — a diaeresis, or an umlaut? I don’t know, and I can’t get my laptop to do it — to type an o with this particular accent mark. I have tried and tried. It makes me feel like a fool. The spelling of Schrodinger is difficult generally. What kind of name is Schrodinger, anyway?

Austrian. Schrodinger is an Austrian name. But never mind that! Onward.

Schrodinger’s cat is the name of a thought experiment made up by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger as a teaching tool to illustrate how some physicists were misinterpreting quantum theory.

I hope Schodinger’s students did not take him literally and try his thought experiment at home. His idea (which at first glance seems cruel, but he didn’t actually do it) was to put a cat into a sealed box containing poison and then open the box at some later date. The cat might be alive, or it might be dead. According to some people’s view of quantum theory, the cat would exist in both states at the same time, but because of the decoherence factor, other states would not be observable or accessible.

As I pointed out, Schrodinger didn’t really put a cat into a sealed box containing poison in order to prove that the cat was neither merely alive nor merely dead, but both alive and dead at the same time, because, you know, parallel universes and the other worlds theory. He just put forward the idea to show how ridiculous it was. Einstein, I read, liked Schodinger’s cat-in-the-box thought experiment. Einstein no doubt understood it. Time, energy, quantum mechanics, you name it, Einstein understood it. Schodinger eventually dropped quantum physics and became a biologist, and who can blame him?

These days, with the pandemic like spread of conspiracy theories so obviously false you’d think they would choke the person uttering them — a person likely to be a duly elected politician, or a co-worker or your brother-in-law — it is getting harder and harder to think up anything too outlandish for people to accept. Even quantum physics.

Meanwhile, script writers and novelists have gone crazy with the other worlds/parallel universes idea. What fun, when you interpret it to mean, like, Esmeralda is forced in this world to marry the horrid old Earl of Whatever, but in an alternate reality she marries her true love, a commoner named, say, Frank Schrodinger.

In the fictional accounts, the characters involved go back and forth between worlds, engaging in murderous rampages or floundering in quicksand or clinging to craggy precipices or riding galloping steeds in between bouts of steamy passion. This is not correct, according to quantum physics, though, and one can imagine the irritation and frustration of physicists whose spouses are enthusiastically engaged in watching such a show on television. Physicists know that there can be no interaction between worlds, because, of course, decoherence, but no one will listen.

You may well wonder how I happened to choose the topic of Schodinger’s cat for this column. A friend of mine put the idea into my head. She (falsely) accused me of reading Nietzsche — I would never read Nietzsche, he is so negative! — and when I told her I couldn’t even spell his name, she said yes, she has the same problem with Schrodinger’s cat. So I Googled Schrodinger’s cat, and one thing led to another. All I can figure is that this friend lives out on a ranch in Texas, and what with COVID isolation she has time to think about these esoteric subjects. I may suggest that we read and discuss “How the Hippies Saved Physics,” by David Kaiser.

Quantum physics can explain how computers work, but maybe cannot explain black holes. Unfortunately, I don’t have time or space in this column to explain it now.

Have a good week.