I wrote this story as kind of an experiment. I saw (and still see) a fundamental problem with a basic tenant in quantum physics, that being that a particle remains in an indeterminate state until observed. It violates the rules of common sense, and I came up with a simple explanation for it. Being a librarian rather than a physicist makes it singularly unlikely that my explanation would ever get published in any reputable science journals, so I decided to write a short story about it instead.
The fact that my short story remains unpublished means that my simple explanation will never be revealed, unless someone with some physics credentials actually reads and and either tells me that I have a point or tells me why I’m full of shit. I’d be good either way. I just want my idea to get a fair hearing.
It’s a 7000+ word story, and the actual dilemma is only hinted at in part 1 here. Part 2 will hold the actual dilemma and my proposed solution. The world will have to wait another day.
Feline Blue – Part 1 of 3
“Dad? Can you build me a black box?”
The last of the guests had gone home from the party, and it was well past my daughter’s bedtime. I felt like it was well past mine as well. I’ve always been kind of a lightweight when it comes to drinking, and two glasses of wine left me feeling pretty swell. After four glasses, however, I find that a comfortable chair the safest place for my surroundings and me, and the chair I was sitting in was very comfortable.
Still, the words had been simple enough, and the question had little difficulty navigating my brain until it found a section still capable of reasoning.
“Sure, honey,” I smiled. “What do you need one for?”
“I need it for my science fair project.” She paused a little nervously. “I think I’m going to need to borrow the cat, too.”
Something about the use of the words “cat” and “science project” in the same paragraph has an instantly sobering effect.
“Um, the cat? You want to borrow the cat?”
“It’ll be okay. I’ll just need him for one day,” she said, suddenly shifting to earnest pleading that precocious ten-year-old little girls do so well. Obviously, she had anticipated that she might have some difficulty persuading me on this aspect of her project. “I decided that I wanted to do the Schroeder’s cat experiment thing.”
I stared at her with a blank look for a long moment. Something tugged at my memory, something disquieting. I had visions of a physics class that talked a little about quantum particles. I had memories of complete confusion. And then, I remembered.
“Do you mean Schrödinger’s Cat?”
I didn’t remember a lot of details of the experiment, but one thing in particular about Schrödinger’s Cat did seem to stand out in my memory as being important.
“I’m sorry; isn’t that the experiment where the cat kind of, like, dies?”
Now I’ll admit that I’ve never had the greatest affection for that cat. There had been an ‘incident’ from the past–an incident that had not only placed it on the top of my shit list, but had also earned it his name.
Still, as much as I disliked him, I didn’t like the idea of having the ASPCA getting on me for the sake of a fifth grade science project.
Sally, however, was quick to reassure me.
“No, I couldn’t kill Voldy. I just want to paint him blue.”
“Ah! Now I understand. Since when have they started teaching quantum physics in fifth grade?”
Sally looked at me blankly.
“What’s quantium physics?”
“Sally, where did you hear about Schrödinger’s cat?”
“Kasey was talking about it tonight. It sounded cool.”
That explained a lot. Kasey was the kid of Bubba, the physicist who lived next door. Bubba must have talked about it at some point or another, and Kasey picked up on it.
“That’s good, Sally. It’s time for bed.”
“But can I borrow the cat?”
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow, dear.”
# # # #
The cat in question is an almost pure white domestic shorthair whose name is Voldemort. I get a lot of questions as to why I would name a white cat Voldemort. I just say it came to me one night.
My wife had rescued it from a parking lot in which it had been abandoned. Voldemort was weaned from his mother far too early, and he has a personality that is very characteristic of this. He climbs on counters. He steels chicken off our plates. He snarls and snaps for no good reason. He tries to eat the buttons off my shirts. He tries to crawl into my mouth when I’m sleeping. He never paid any attention to the rules, never responded to discipline, and he is unbelievably nasty when he’s not being unbearably affectionate.
All of this just makes him annoying. There was the time, however, when Voldemort was still a kitten and I was getting ready to take a shower…I don’t know how he jumped up so high…I guess he saw some fascinating, swinging objects, and…
Well, let’s just say that kittens have very sharp claws.
His one saving grace is that the incident did not require what would have been a VERY embarrassing trip to the hospital. My wife managed to stop laughing long enough to bring me some gauze. I healed quickly, but the scratch earned me a jagged scar that psychologically aches whenever he enters the room.
And it also earned him an enemy for life.
My wife died a few years later (we don’t need to talk about that) and I now have full responsibility for the animal. Sally just loves him to death (I wish), so the cat and I have reached an agreement. I will hate his guts but won’t kill him, and he will continue to make my life a living hell while at the same time thinking I am the best owner in the world, so long as I keep putting food in his dish.
# # # #
Sally and I discussed her idea the next day, after I had taken several headache pills and drank two large glasses of water. The idea was actually very clever. She planned to simulate the quantum particle with a marble and a random switching thing (she was a little vague about this part). If the marble went one way, the cat would be painted blue. If it went the other way, nothing would happen. There would be no way to know which way it went. This would mean, by using Schrödinger’s rules and a little imagination, that the cat would be both blue and not blue simultaneously.
The real Schrödinger’s cat experiment (which I quickly relearned after a Google search) involved a sealed box, a radioactive nucleus and a bottle of cyanide gas. Things are set up so that there is a 50% chance that the nucleus will decay within one hour. If it decays, the cyanide is released and the cat dies. Quantum theory states that the nucleus is in an undetermined state between being decayed and un-decayed. Ipso facto, the cat enters the same undetermined state, and starts “fluxing,” as Sally liked to describe it. The cat was therefore both dead and alive at the same time, except that with her variation, the cat would be both blue and not blue at the same time. He would stay in this state until the box was opened.
I was pretty sure that giving a marble a 50% chance of spilling blue paint on a cat was not really a true re-creation of the experiment, but it was no worse an example than all of those science fair volcanoes were true recreations of real volcanoes.
And, it struck me as a prize-winning idea for a fifth grade science fair.
I debated arguing with her on one point, however. I wondered if I should say that we didn’t need to use a real cat, and that we could get by with just a toy cat, or even a picture of a cat.
However, using a real cat would definitely make the project stand out. And even though I was also sure that it would make the building of the box much more difficult, somehow the challenge appealed to me.
Besides, I really liked the idea of putting Voldemort into a black box. I had no problem making him part of an experiment where he was almost guaranteed to make him uncomfortable.
So I approved of Sally’s experiment wholeheartedly. Still, I had to make one fundamental change in Sally’s plan.
“First of all, no paint.”
Sally pouted. “Why not?”
“Because to get the paint off of the cat, I would have to give it a bath, and I do not want to give that cat a bath.”
“Well, what else could we use?”
“I was thinking blue Kool-Aid. The cat could just lick that off himself.”
Sally thought for a moment. “Okay. That’d be cool enough, I guess.”
Now the problem would be the black box. My initial vision of an old cardboard box with spray paint obviously wasn’t going to cut it. This thing was probably going to have to be made of wood, and it was going to have to have some kind of a random mechanism in it for dispensing the Kool-Aid onto a cat that probably would not be too happy about being in the box in the first place.
My woodworking skills have never been exemplary. In school, my wood shop teacher looked at a corner shelf that I had made and laughed for a good two minutes before he gave me a D on it. (The only way to flunk wood shop was to either not show up at all or to try to put a hand other than your own under a drill press).
So, I was going to need some help.
I could have gone in one of two directions. First, there was the left neighbor, Milton. Milton was a big, beefy guy–the kind of guy who likes to tear engines out of cars just for the fun of it. The cars rarely worked right again after he put the engines back in, but still, for him, building a black box would probably not be a difficult job. I could have gone over to his house, asked him to build me a black box with a thing that uses a marble to sprinkle blue Kool-Aid on a cat. He’d have said, “Sure, I’ll have it for you by tomorrow.” And after only a week, he’d have a contraption that would probably work if it could survive the car trip to the school.
And that would have been the end of it.
My second choice was my other neighbor, Bubba. Bubba, despite his namesake, was a geeky looking physics teacher at the local community college. Statistical odds suggest that there have to be some people named Bubba out there who are smart, and our neighbor was the one who beat the odds. In addition, he was the one who, indirectly, put the idea into my kid’s brain in the first place. I wasn’t sure how handy he was with tools, but he could certainly help with the presentation part of the experiment; a part which I suspected Milton would have been of no real help.
I chose Bubba. I decided that I felt more comfortable seeming dumb about quantum physics than I felt about seeming dumb about building things. Just some dormant machismo genes, I guess.
When I talked to him about it the next day, he was enthusiastic about the project. We got together with Sally and began to work out the details.
Bubba and I started out by brainstorming.
“What should we make the box out of?” I asked.
“Well, something reasonably sound resistant, if were going to use a real cat,” replied Bubba.
“I was just thinking plywood.”
“Probably simplest, but the inside of the wood part should be padded. We’ll need a cage so that we can show what the cat looks like without giving him a chance to escape.”
“That’s fine.” Cage? Black box? Padded cell? I was beginning to like this idea better and better. “We’ll use some black spray paint and some plywood, with a little insulating foam. What about air? The cat will need to breathe.”
“Look, we’re not exactly trying to build a submarine, here, Evan” he replied. “Whatever we come up with will be far from airtight. Besides, he won’t be in there for very long and he’ll be able to breathe through the marble switching mechanism.”
“What about Superman?” asked Sally.
This question came from so far out of the nowhere that Bubba and I just stared at each other for a few moments in dumb confusion. Finally, I blinked back to reality.
“What about Superman?” I asked.
“I mean, since Superman has x-ray eyes and can see through anything but lead, he could see the cat, and then the cat couldn’t be fluxing.”
I was about to dismiss Superman, as I felt he was not likely to show up for the judging, but Bubba interrupted.
“We can just buy a roll of lead foil to line the inside of the box with. Not expensive at all.”
“Okay, we’ll put lead foil in the box just for Superman’s sake.”
Sally seemed to think about this. You could see the cute, pink wheels of her precocious, ten-year-old brain turning. Something still didn’t seem right to her. Something still didn’t quite fit.
After a moment, she saw what it was.
“What about an alien that can see through lead?”
I forced myself to smile. I was getting a little exasperated by this point.
“Sally, how do we know that there are aliens who can see through lead?”
“How do we know that there aren’t?”
Bubba was smiling here.
“The kid has a point, you know, Evan.”
“Listen, Bubba, you’re not helping. I can afford lead foil, foam, plywood and a can of black spray paint. I can’t afford to build a sound-proof titanium chamber with an oxygen tank.”
Bubba looked deep in thought for a few moments. “Titanium wouldn’t necessarily do the job either. Infrared could still get through. I wonder…”
He paused for a few more moments.
“What would it take to make a ‘true’ black box? Interesting question. I think I’m going to make it a class project, with extra points for anyone who can come up with a good answer.”
“Cool!” said Sally.
“Sally, you’ve got to understand that whatever they come up with is probably going to be too expensive for me to build.”
“I think that’ll be okay. I can use any old box for the experiment so long as I can say what a real black box would look like on my display panels. All of those stupid volcanoes don’t spew real lava, after all.”
“Good. Since we can’t make a true black box in any case, can we leave out the foil?”
“Okay. Superman’s just pretend, anyway.”
“Fine. Bubba, this experiment is due in a month. Do you think you can get an answer by then?”
“I can get it in a week. A good enough answer for our purposes, anyway.”
“Good. In the mean time, I get to try out my woodworking skills. Oh joy.”