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Schrödinger’s Cathouse Redux

This is a post from my old blog(s) (What? Leftovers againnnn?). It got just about zero attention when I originally posted it two years ago, and  got even less when I reposted on my wordpress blog, but it remains one of my favorites even if I was content to let it fade into the electronic aether. Then Lori asked me to repost it here, and who am I to argue. Enjoy:

Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

–Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Schrödinger’s Cat is the most notorious animal in physics. The experiment runs something like this:


A cat is placed in a box, together with a radioactive atom. If the atom decays, and the geiger-counter detects an alpha particle, the hammer hits a flask of prussic acid (HCN), killing the cat. The paradox lies in the clever coupling of quantum and classical domains. Before the observer opens the box, the cat’s fate is tied to the wave function of the atom, which is itself in a superposition of decayed and undecayed states. Thus, said Schrödinger, the cat must itself be in a superposition of dead and alive states before the observer opens the box, “observes” the cat, and “collapses” it’s wave function.*

All of which leads to the curious tendency of quantum mechanics to limit not only what human beings know, but what we CAN know. This may explain why Schrödinger later said of his involvement with quantum physics: “I don’t like it. I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it.” The irony of Schrödinger’s Cat and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle–which states that we can know either a particle’s position or its velocity, but not both–is that they were formulated by Germans. For a German scientist to throw up his hands and say “We can’t know!” rather confirms the validity of these principles to me.

Two centuries earlier, another German put a different spin on this. Immanuel Kant describes an object that is “not an object of sensible intuition.” A transcendent object, he calls it, and one that is out of the realm of observation. This is a noumenon, a thing in and of itself. And like Schrödinger’s Cat, we can’t know what it is.
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