Schrödinger’s cat

A humorous twist to “Schrödinger’s cat”

Does the theory of quantum mechanics apply to macroscopic objects? Erwin Schrödinger dramatized the question in 1935 with a thought experiment. Imagine a sealed box, he proposed, containing a cat, a vial of poison gas, a piece of radioactive material and a radioactive-particle detector. The device is rigged so that the detection of a particle triggers the release of the poison and the death of the cat. The detector is switched on just long enough for it to have a 50% chance of registering a particle, and so the cat has a 50% chance of surviving. According to quantum mechanics, it is meaningless to say, before the box has been opened, that the cat must be either alive or dead. Rather, it exists in a superposition of states: it is both alive and dead. If someone were to look at the cat, one of its two superposed states would instantly crystallize into reality.

I explained this one day to my cat, Frietle. He just shook his head, gave a little snort of contempt and replied “That notion is barbaric, pretentious, and ridiculous! Barbaric, because no decent person would treat a cat in such a cruel manner. Pretentious, because Schrödinger assumes the facts of reality are determined only when he peeks into the box. He completely neglects the fact that I too am a conscious entity, and I certainly know if I am alive! It is ridiculous in its assumption that reality is determined by any consciousness, either Schrödinger’s or mine. It is very clear that the universe was around (and functioning quite nicely, thank you) for a billion years before there were any conscious entities at all in it. And it is equally clear that the universe will continue to function for a billion years after Schrödinger is merely a little pile of dust—and I am an even littler pile of dust.”

Having tossed off these profound ethical, epistemological and metaphysical observations, Frietle turned up his tail (the tail of a cat is his principal organ of emotional expression) and ambled off to find a comfortable place for his afternoon nap.

He returned a while later and added this comment: “If Schrödinger had any sense of scientific procedure, he would simply have put two cats into the box. Applying the Pauli Exclusion Principle, their scrapping, scratching, and screeching would have left no doubt in the mind of any observer as to their being alive.”

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  • who knows  On May 6, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    state of the universe without consciousness has not been established..the state of universe for dead cat is not known..and what is universe..the state of things at the “beginning”/the state of things when cat was born/the state of things when cat died or neither of these?

    all scientific procedures involves assumptions/systems and reality is something which can not have any assumptions

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 6, 2009 at 10:55 pm

      Consciousness does not “create” existence. Existence simply exists. No need to “establish” the fact. See the comments on this post.

      • who knows  On May 7, 2009 at 7:25 pm

        cannot refute the fact that “existence” exists but to me the question is whether the “universe/existence” as we percieve through our senses is the “existence”or just a glimpse of whole “existence”.
        The limited power of our senses is very easily proved and by deduction our limited knowledge obtained through them.
        All the efforts of science and philosophy are aimed at finding that single law which explains everything,maybe there is a single law/may be not.

        And till we find the truth there is a distinct possibility that existence is nothing but consciousness.upanishads say so and have described a procedure to percieve the same.

        • Aristotle The Geek  On May 7, 2009 at 11:33 pm

          # “whether the ‘universe/existence’ as we percieve through our senses is the “existence”or just a glimpse of whole ‘existence’….limited power of our senses is very easily proved and by deduction our limited knowledge obtained through them.”
          Kant’s noumenal-phenomenal question. What we perceive is exactly what exists. When you see an elephant, its an elephant, not a stone, and so on.

          As for the power of our senses, I agree they are limited, but there are ways to gain knowledge of things that humans cannot see, smell or hear – science. We don’t see oxygen, or the atom, or bacteria, but we can prove that they exist. Same is the case with radiation or sound beyond our hearing range.

          The whole of the universe is open to human knowledge through the proper use of science. The limit is on our senses, not on our knowledge.

          # “there is a distinct possibility that existence is nothing but consciousness.”
          Can you be conscious without existing? What is it that is conscious? Nothing?

          • who knows  On May 8, 2009 at 1:48 am

            The Buddha here tells the story of a king who had six blind men gathered together to examine an elephant.

            “When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and said to each: ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant

            The six blind men assert the elephant is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephants’ head), wicket basket (ear), ploughshare (tusk), plough (trunk), granary (body), pillar (foot), mortar (back), pestle (tail) or brush (tip of the tail).

            The men cannot agree with one another and come to blows over the question of what an elephant really is like, and this delights the king. The Buddha ends the story of the king and compares the six blind men to preachers and scholars who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: “Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.” The Buddha then speaks the following verse:

            O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
            For preacher and monk the honored name!
            For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
            Such folk see only one side of a thing.

            if existence and consciousness are singular the question that can i be conscious without existing is meaningless.
            True, scientific methods can help us understand better but then today where we stand we do not have all the answers through modern science

            ps: i think buddha was too harsh on scholars..its in the nature of logician

            • Aristotle The Geek  On May 8, 2009 at 10:37 pm

              I know of the story as that of the five blind men.

              The blind men described by Buddha were stupid. If the elephant had grabbed one of them with its trunk, he would have understood that he wasn’t dealing with pots and pans.

              I don’t understand what it is that philosophers find so interesting in comparing the actual “blindness” of the unsighted to the supposed “blindness” of the sighted. Tagore, in the foreword to Radhakrishnan’s book on the Upanishads does something similar-

              For such men the Upanisad-ideas are not wholly abstract, like those belonging to the region of pure logic. They are concrete, like all truths realised through life. The idea of Brahma when judged from the view-point of intellect is an abstraction, but it is concretely real for those who have the direct vision to see it. Therefore the consciousness of the reality of Brahma has boldly been described to be as real as the consciousness of an amlaka fruit held in one’s palm, And the Upanisad says:

              Yato vaco nivartante aprapya manasa saha
              Anandam brahmano vidvan na bibheti kadacana.

              From Him come back baffled both words and mind. But he who realises the joy of Brahma is free from fear.

              Cannot the same thing be said about light itself to men who may by some mischance live all through their life in an underground world cut off from the sun’s rays? They must know that words can never describe to them what light is, and mind, through its reasoning faculty, can never even understand how one must have a direct vision to realise it intimately and be glad and free from fear.

              We often hear the complaint that the Brahma of the Upansads is described to us mostly as a bundle of negations. Are we not driven to take the same course ourselves when a blind man asks for a description of light? Have we not to say in such a case that light has neither sound, nor taste, nor form, nor weight, nor resistance, nor can it be known through any process of analysis? Of course it can be seen; but what is the use of saying this to one who has no eyes? He may take that statement on trust without understanding in the least what it means, or may altogether disbelieve it, even suspecting in us some abnormality.

              Does the truth of the fact that a blind man has missed the perfect development of what should be normal about his eyesight depend for its proof upon the fact that a larger number of men are not blind? The very first creature which suddenly groped into the possession of its eyesight had the right to assert that light was a reality. In the human world there may be very few who have their spiritual eyes open, but, in spite of the numerical preponderance of those who cannot see, their want of vision must not be cited as an evidence of the negation of light.

              We can only be aware of our lack of knowledge “about” something, not “of” something. Take the lunar eclipse. Since folks weren’t aware of how it happened, they cooked up stories – they were ignorant of the mechanics of the eclipse, not of the phenomena. Providing explanations for phenomena is the job of science.

              Be it Tagore, or some philosopher, one should know that argument by analogy doesn’t always work. The blind “know” that they are blind. They know that specific things exist around them, they are aware of it, but they can’t see it. That’s all there is to it. Same is the case with light. The fact that they can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But then they know “of” something called light, and its nature. And those with sight – the majority of mankind – can see it as well. Its not the same with the so called mysteries of the universe. Not even close.

              # “if existence and consciousness are singular”
              You mean one and the same? But it isn’t. Existence is a fact – a state of affairs. Consciousness is a property of an existent, living object. There is no way they can be one and the same, or two manifestations of some single whatever.

              • undercover Indian  On May 11, 2009 at 6:15 pm

                Quantam physics experiments have shown that results depend on whether anyone is observing or not.This is the fact as science calls them. So why do you dismiss it as quantam mysticism!! Is it because like all of us, you have your own biases which decide what you want to believe regardless of what facts seem to suggest??

                May be you are right in your “belief” from philisophical perspective. Scientists, philisophers,mystics , all have (and are) tried to answer the seminal question about our existence, from different perspective. So what if Science at micro (quantum) level starts resemblimg like some old eastern thoughts! May be that is the truth. May be that is the converegence of human seekings. Read Gary Zukov’s Dancing Wu Li Masters on this subject.

                • Aristotle The Geek  On May 11, 2009 at 10:46 pm

                  I have no clue of the technicalities surrounding QM, but what the “theory” says as regards existence at the subatomic level has consequences for any philosophy of reason – existence precedes consciousness, therefore consciousness shouldn’t affect existence. If it does, the scientists are missing something, or are engaging in misstatements. As Hans Bethe said-

                  The inventors of quantum mechanics including the best ones like Bohr and Heisenberg and Schrodinger did a very bad service to people by putting that uncertainty principle so high in their discussion. Only the orbits of electrons and atoms cannot be described. But quantum mechanics makes exact predictions for all observable quantities; for instance for the wavelength of spectral lines. It is completely misleading to say quantum mechanics makes things uncertain. In particular, if there were no quantum theory then atoms could not exist because what you have is a nucleus – positive charge – and electrons around it. If you didn’t have quantum theory, the electrons would fall into the nucleus in quite a short time – a second or less – and you couldn’t have any atoms, you couldn’t have any chemistry, you couldn’t exist without quantum mechanics. So the idea that quantum theory makes things uncertain is totally wrong. And of course once the physicists stated it [the uncertainty principle], the philosophers were delighted and said well, everything is uncertain. That is not at all correct.

                  The “philosophers” take one convenient element out of the whole, and construct mystic theories. Why philosophers, even scientists are engaging in the same (refer to the Discover article on biocentricism that I linked to here). That’s where they cause enormous harm. Just like statist economists.

                  And yes, I “am” biased towards reason. Like someone told Branden, “the trouble with you is you’re just prejudiced against dictatorships.” That kind of prejudice is something I would consider a badge of honor.

                  • undercover Indian  On May 12, 2009 at 1:03 pm

                    You are right to be biased towards reason. Just like a scientist needs to be biased about his discipline (experiments, proofs etc) to get to anywhere.

                    But as Werner Heisenberg said “It is probably true quite generally that in the history of human thinking, the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet.”

                    That is confluence.

                    E.g Easterm mystics (as old as Gita!!)have said that everything we see is manifestation of energy or a “consiousness” or that oneness which takes different forms. And in last century, Esinstein’s equation caused the physicist to abandon the concept of mass as ‘stuff’ and regard it as a bundle of energy.

                    “So the idea that quantum theory makes things uncertain is totally wrong”

                    That is hardly the point. The point is that a radical and complete break with the paradigms of classical physics was required for engaging in quantum physics. Classical physics dealt with gross or what is “seen” whereas QP deals in “unseen” or the subtle. And it is here that the confluence of science and eastern spiritual thoughts happen or seems to happen.

                    Read Ken Wibler’s book on Holograhic Paradigm which delves deeper into this. BTW for every Hans Bethe , there would be a David Bohm and his Implicate Order
                    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wholeness_and_the_Implicate_Order

  • suzanner  On July 30, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Having revisited Schrodinger’s cat several times, I’m glad for your article. (IANAphysicist, but one who delves into science for reference.) The state of the cat in the closed box is only in the mind’s eye and a better metaphor would be appreciated by everyone, imo. Am I completely wrong?
    I see no more paradox than when baking a cake with a 50% chance of not rising.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On August 1, 2009 at 11:52 pm

      I think everyone understands the 50-50 nature of the paradox in question. The cat is either dead or alive, the cake will either rise or it won’t and so on. But 50-50 questions are not the “only” ones when it comes to QM. Infinite possibilities may exist in a particular case.

      The Copenhagen interpretation of QM, and QM itself, is outrageous only because it deals with reality in probabilistic terms. The most common statement I read is—consciousness/ measurement/ observation results in a “collapse” of the wavefunction. Its not that subatomic particles exist in a particular state and we lack knowledge of the same, but that they exist in all states simultaneously till our “knowledge” forces them into one of the states. This, is a bit difficult to swallow, and reframing the paradox doesn’t dissolve it.

  • Suzanne  On August 4, 2009 at 6:59 am

    Thanks. I see what you’re saying. Trying to relate the phenomenon to any experience is then futile. Even singularity vs symmetry only applies to the observable…?
    I appreciate your time. Have you a suggestion for reading? I left off with chaos and string theory a while ago. (Busy working and trying to help correct the Bush mess, you see.)

    • Aristotle The Geek  On August 8, 2009 at 12:56 am

      # “Trying to relate the phenomenon to any experience is then futile…”
      I don’t know what one can say about it. Something occurs, in a very definite way, and the result can be verified every time, but we don’t know “how.” The various “interpretations” of the “how,” defy logic, and the whole idea is uncomfortable to say the least.

      As for reading, I don’t think I can recommend anything worthwhile. My interest in the subject is philosophical in nature and the only books on the science of it all that I have read are Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” and a biography of Einstein (by Clark I think). This was a long time back.

      That said, you could try reading the works of some famous physicists who are still alive – Hawking, Weinberg, Penrose etc, and books on/ by those involved in the whole relativity-QM affair – Einstein, Born, Mach, Frank etc. As for philosophy, Immanuel Kant’s notorious “Critique of Pure Reason,” and the skeptical epistemology and metaphysics of David Hume have had a great influence on the subject. You could start with some commentaries on them, like the one by Copleston.

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