Cats and Physics

Schrödinger's Cat ParadoxToday we are going to talk about physics, yet again, I just find so many of the aspects and theories dealing with the subject very fascinating. A while back I was looking up paradoxes and various other things, as this is how I spend a lot of my free time when I am not reading or writing. I read about Zeon’s paradoxes which I think are interesting as well, but most scientist have refuted them. In Time by Alexander Waugh, which I talked about in an earlier post, the author goes into detail about how illogical Zeno and his paradoxes are. Honestly I did not understand Waugh’s arguments against Zeno’s paradoxes, regardless I still find them interesting. At the basis of Zeno’s paradoxes he tries to make the argument that movement is an allusion. Again all three of his paradoxes have pretty much been refuted but nonetheless they make you think, which I believe is the main point.



Anyways… there is another paradox that I find very interesting and it is called Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox. To fully wrap your mind around this paradox, I will try to explain quantum superposition. It basically says that all quantum matter exist in all states at the same time. Only once it is being observed or measured does it pick a state for the viewer. So a photon making its way across the lab behaves as both a wave and a particle. Depending on how it is measured does it then act like a wave or a particle. All you need to remember is that a single electron can exist in all states at the same time and only when measured does it choose which state it is. So now on to the cat…

This paradox involves a box, a cat (obviously), a vial of poison, and a single radioactive source or a single decaying atom. If you want to get really technical a hammer or something to break the vial is also needed. The thought experiment goes as stated: a cat is left in a metal box for an hour with poison and a device to detect if a single atom had decayed from the radioactive substance. The radioactive decay is a random process, it is impossible to predict if this will happen during the aforementioned hour. If an atom is detected then that will trigger the hammer to break the vial killing the cat, if not then the cat will still be alive. The box is opened at the end of the hour either revealing a live cat or a dead one, therein lies the paradox. Unless the box is opened the cat is both live and dead at the same time, one can only guess the fate of the cat without opening the box. It takes an observer, a person, to find out if the cat is actually live and dead. We all know that a cat cannot be both alive and dead at the same time, but this experiment makes the argument that this is the case.

Einstein basically called Schrödinger a fool and laughed at this whole idea. This paradox is interesting to me because the way we see things work in reality is not always the case at the quantum level. There are tons of examples of how our most basic and sturdy theories about how the universe works break down and crumble at the quantum level. This is another example of that. As I stated above the cat cannot be both live and dead at the same time, we know this and our reality confirms it. But if we go back to the quantum superposition, quantum mater exist in all states and decided how to behave only when measured. So the point here is that if we do not open the box the cat is both live and dead, because the box will have to be observed, ie. opening the box to find out for sure. Until we do that we cannot know for sure of the cats fate, remember the radioactive decay is completely random. This opens another can or worms called the observer’s paradox, basically that the observer can affect the outcome. Which is the case and has been confirmed by numerous experiments by physicists. This also opens the door for the Many-worlds Interpretation. Using this interpretation the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, only when an observer opens the box does reality, or the reality at the quantum level, decide if the cat is alive or not. Once the box is opened and the cat “observed” reality splits into two separate but equally real universes. One in which the cat is alive and the other where it is dead. As the theory goes, these two universes cannot interact with each other. This theory cannot be tested obviously, as it is currently impossible to know if another parallel universe exist.

Regardless if you think this thought experiment is silly or not I think Schrödinger was trying to get people to realized that there is so much that we do not understand at the quantum level and, in the case with the cat, it can affect our reality.

If at some point in the future we understand how our universe works at the most basic level, we might be able to manipulate our reality to our liking. I know I am reaching here, and I hope this is not getting too far into the realm of science fiction. We are just now beginning to understand DNA and how it works, which is the building blocks for life on this planet. Now we can clone animals, create genetically modified food, and recently, create the first artificial living cell, “whose parents are a computer.” Now I am sure I am missing something but I believe that if we can fully understand the universe at its most basic level then will be able to manipulate the cosmos much like we can change the landscape here on earth to fit our liking. I cannot even begin to imagine what that will be like, but it is fun to dream about.

Putting this all together is a bit of a puzzle. Like I said above at the sub atomic level we know these things to be true, but we do not know why, our understanding if limited at best. Also, as I stated above we do not know how this affects our reality. We know the cat cannot be both alive and dead, but it takes us to actually observe the cat to find out for sure if it is alive or dead. Most of the physics books I have read by Hawking and Greene and even the new Cosmos Neil Degrasse Tyson talks about the Grand Theory of Everything (ToE) that will bridge the gap between the infinitely small and the absurdly large things in our universe. That is the goal of modern physics, so far they have been unsuccessful. I am fairly certain I have done a less than adequate job of explaining this, so if you are interested do a few Google searches. Also, don’t forget to check out Zeno’s Paradoxes they are quite interesting as well.

Keep dreaming…


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