This is part two of my answer to the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment. Part 1 can be found here. This part phrases my explanation for the phenomenon as bast as I can. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, don’t worry. I probably don’t either. 😉
Feline Blue – Part 2 of 3
Sally and I worked on the box for the next week, and Bubba came in to kibitz and suggest from time to time. I cut the boards to the best of my ability, then Sally and I used some glue, nails, and paint, and before long we had something that looked quite definitely like a black box designed by a ten-year old and drunken orangutan. It was reasonably solid though, so then we got to work on the more complicated, mechanical part.
Fortunately, when Sally was a little girl, I bought her this marble racetrack thing. You could set up a bunch of tracks and tubes and windmills and you could drop the marbles from the top of the contraption and watch them as they took all kinds of exciting twists and turns before they hit the floor and rolled under the sofa. Both Sally and I thought it was really cool when we first started playing with it. The trouble was that Sally only thought it was really cool for about three minutes, so I was forced to play with it by myself after that, which wasn’t nearly as much fun.
Still, the racetrack thing had all of the tubes and gears necessary to make a ball bearing take one of two paths in a reasonably random manner. (We decided that a marble wouldn’t be heavy enough.) Bubba helped a lot here. After a lot of Mouse Trap like gizmos, we got is so that if the bearing took one of the paths it would flip over a half cup of blue Kool-Aid. It was actually a lot of fun.
Then we padded the box with good, thick foam, put in one of the cat’s “special blankies,” and plopped in Voldemort.
And Voldemort, surprisingly, was fine with this. Cats have some kind of natural affinity toward boxes, and this one was particularly warm and cozy. He popped himself in and out of the box for a couple of hours, and then finally stayed inside for long nap.
“We’ll let him get comfortable with it for a while, so he doesn’t freak out when we do the actual experiment.”
So everything was proceeding along just swimmingly until Bubba stopped in after school to see Sally and me the next day.
“Can’t be done.”
“What can’t be done?” I asked.
“I mean that a true ‘black box’ is a theoretical impossibility.”
“You mean you don’t know how to make one?” asked Sally.
“No, I mean that one can’t be made. It’s impossible.”
I asked incredulously. “You mean even a million mile wall thick wall of lead…”
“…would still let neutrinos through like the wall was barely there. The only thing that could act as a perfect barrier to information would be a black hole.”
Sally brightened. “Well, I can just use that, then.”
“No, you couldn’t, because a black hole is a one-way trip. You would never be able to find out if the cat was blue or not. Effectively, the cat would not exist at all, because its existence would have no effect on anything else. To all intents and purposes, it wouldn’t even be part of our universe anymore. Only its mass would remain.”
Sally looked at Bubba without comprehension for a few moments.
“Then how can I do my experiment?”
“It doesn’t affect the experiment. You just have to say that the black box is just a theoretical formulation used to illustrate a quantum concept.”
Sally stared at Bubba as if he had just spoken to her in Finnish. Bubba was used to teaching college level physics. He certainly had students who no more understood what he was talking about than Sally did, but at college, he could just flunk them. He wasn’t used to trying to simplify his explanations.
I interpreted for him.
“He means you can say that the black box is just a pretend idea so that scientists can use it to show something cool about physics.”
“But if the box is pretend, then the fluxing is just pretend, too.”
“No, the flux can still happen,” Bubba replied, but he paused doubtfully for a moment. Then he continued, “We just can’t build a real black box. There isn’t anything that can be built that would stop all information. Maybe it would just be gravity waves or neutrinos, but if you have an alien that can see those, then the black box still doesn’t work.”
Sally frowned, and then frowned deeper, and then took on an expression that looked about as dangerously angry as a ten-year old girl wearing a pink and white “Princess” tee shirt can look.
“Then the whole experiment doesn’t work.”
“Sally, the experiment is fine…”
“NO!” she shouted. “The cat can’t be fluxing. If some super powerful alien can come along and see the cat, the alien could always tell if the cat were blue or not.”
“Sally, it’s just a thought experiment in quantum physics. It’s not based on reality. It’s just something pretend…”
She interrupted angrily, “So I have to pretend that the cat is fluxing when he isn’t? I think the whole quantium thing is pretend, too! I should have done a volcano. At least I don’t have to pretend whether there are real volcanoes.”
“No! Forget it! I don’t want to do my blue cat experiment anymore. This quantium stuff is stupid!”
Sally turned and ran to her bedroom, slamming the door.
I had just spent a week building a black box–a magnificent mess–and I wasn’t about to give up on the idea very easily. I turned to my scientist friend, who was looking a little overwhelmed at the moment. “Look Bubba. I’m going to go and try to reason with her. Just help yourself to a drink. I’ll be right back.”
And I raced to Sally’s room and knocked.
“Sally, can I come in?”
I could hear a muffled sobbing on the other end. “No.”
“Sally, I really think you need to hear what I have to say.”
I heard a quiet shuffling on the other side of the door. Sally opened it, her eyes streaked with tears. She left it open and ran back to her bed and buried back her face into the sheets.
“Sally, I want you to understand something.”
I went over and sat next to her on the bed.
“You’ve taken on a really great experiment. I’d hate to see you give it up. It’s just that you are trying to show something that most people don’t even know about until college. This is really complicated stuff. I can’t even begin to understand it myself, and even Mr. Bubba doesn’t understand it completely.”
Sally turned to look at me and started to say something, but I held up my hand to stop her.
“But there other people out there who do understand it, and these people are very, very smart. If they say that that’s the way it is, I think we have to take their word for it.”
“I don’t care. It doesn’t make sense and I think it’s just stupid.”
“Sally, do you think there are still a lot of things that don’t seem to make sense, but are true anyway. Think about the world being round.”
“What about it? I know that the world is round.”
“But for a long time, people thought the world was flat. Then some very smart people were able to figure out that the world was round. If you look outside, does it look round to you? Or does it look flat?”
Sally sniffled. “It looks flat.”
“Yes it does, doesn’t it? Would you know how to prove that the world is round?”
“I could build a rocket and go into space.”
“Can you build a rocket, Sally.”
She sniffed again. “No”
“But other people can build rockets, just like other people understand why the cat would be fluxing. Does that make sense?”
“Okay, Sally. Just think about it for a while. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Mr. Bubba says that it’s true. I think we should take his word for it.”
Sally sniffed. “I don’t want to.”
I talked to her for another ten minutes or so. She finally agreed, reluctantly, to go one with the experiment.
“Thanks Sally. I’d really appreciate it.”
She buried her face in the bed sheets again as I left he and I walked back out to the living room.
Bubba was still sitting on the sofa, but now, there was bottle of whisky in front of him.
The bottle was about four-fifths empty.
I was sure that the bottle had been full when I bought it for the party a little over a week earlier, and I was also sure that it had never been opened since then.
Nevertheless, just a few swallows of the liquid remained.
I couldn’t see a glass around. He must have been drinking right out of the bottle.
“Bubba, you didn’t need to help yourself to a drink quite that enthusiastically.”
Bubba turned to look at me–or rather, I should say that he turned to look in my general direction. His eyes were not currently capable of pinpoint accuracy.
“I think the kid may be right.”
“Right about what?”
“Schroeder’s cat. The whole conception may just fall apart if a black box isn’t theoreckticly possible.”
“What are you talking about? I just spent fifteen minutes convincing her that she was wrong. You can’t do this to me Bubba.”
“But she may be right.”
“She can’t be right. She’s ten-years old.”
Bubba thought about this. He thought about it for quite a while.
“I think she can be both, I think,” he finally replied.
“But I thought this was one of the founding tenants of quantum physics.”
“It is an illustrative point of quantum physics that no one has ever really firmly decided on. I’m worried this fifth-grade science experiment may have just put a nail in its coffin. That’s why I’m getting drunk.”
“…but,” he interrupted, “the black box was always just theory. Just a concept. No one ever really thought of making a real one. But it turns out that a real black box is impossible, and that means that she may be right, and that the entire Schrody thing may not be possible.
“And, while I can’t say that I’m thinking really clearly at the moment, I have the feeling that somehow that chops at the foundations of quantum physics. At the very least, I think that it means something important. But I don’t have the math for it at the best of times, and certainly not right now. So I decided not to think about it, and I thought about whiskey instead. I’m pretty sure I made the right decision.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Whiskey. It’s helping me a lot right now.”
“No, quantum physics. This is a fifth grade science fair project. It has nothing to do with quantum physics.”
“The experiment is based on quantum physics.”
“But it uses marbles and a wooden box.”
“Just as good as anything else, if she’s right.”
“But…the experiment…if the Schrödinger effect can’t exist, what are we supposed to do now?”
“We? I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’ve decided to get very drunk! I’ve already explained that in detail. I can see that you don’t want to take this approach, so here, look at this.”
He took a coin from his pocket (with some difficulty) and threw it into my bedroom. At least, that’s what I think he was trying to do. The coin instead ricocheted off a wall a good four feet from the bedroom’s entrance and bounced, I suspected, into the kitchen.
“Okay, now tell me about the coin.”
“Well, I think it may have nicked the paint on the wall in the hallway, and it’s probably rolled under the refrigerator by now.”
He seemed to think about this with interest. You could almost see his great but inebriated brain at work, like two balloons trying to make love during a windstorm. As time went on, I could see that the rapidly ingested alcohol was taking more and more control of all that which was Bubba.
Then he smiled at me with a monumentally stupid grin.
“No, you’re funny.” He laughed a kind of choking laugh and tilted dangerously to one side. He caught himself, and sat back up again. He wasn’t exactly straight, but he was not a quite so precarious an angle.
“No, tell me the state of the coin. Did it land heads or tails?”
“I don’t know,” I said firmly. I was quite sure that this was exactly what he wanted me to say.
“Right!” The balloons in his head were hit by a good gust again, and it took him a few moments to continue. “Now, what if we were in a position where we could never determine its state?”
“We may be in such a position. If the coin rolled under the refrigerator, I have no intention of trying to get it from out from there.”
His grin achieved a state of even greater stupidity. “Perfect!” he affirmed. “And its state isn’t effecting anything else in the world. So now, if I had to declare its state mathemacal… mathmomatical… using math, and since I’d have no way to determine which state it was in, I’d have to say that the coin’s stated was indeterdminable, that it was both heads AND tails.
“So…” He paused, his balloons doing their erotic dance again for a while.
“So, the moment the coin’s state affects the universe in any way whatsoever, the state of the coin IS ALWAYS deterdimnable, because of Superman. Since the math is describing an impossible state, the math gives us a meaningless answer.” He paused in drunken triumph. “So therefore the Schrodininger effect is just a mathefactical fantasy, because it isn’t based on reality at all.” And then, with a victorious and still monumentally stupid grin, he flopped over on the sofa and passed out.
I found a large Tupperware bowl and left it by his head, hoping against hope that if his body felt the need to exorcise itself of some of its excess alcohol, and if he couldn’t stagger to the bathroom, that at least he might have enough sense to aim for the bowl.
And then I drained the rest of the bottle and went to bed myself.
# # # #
Bubba was gone by the time I awoke in the morning, which suited me fine. The bowl remained unused, and there were no bad smells to be detected, so overall, I was rather pleased by the way the thing turned out.
I didn’t see Bubba for the next couple of days. When he returned, he was as geeky and as chipper as ever.
“It’s all mathematics, Evan,” he said without preamble. “I did some more digging into the origins of the Schrödinger Cat experiment. Did you know that Schrödinger himself did not really believe that the cat would be in a dead-alive state? What he was trying to do to show how preposterous the whole thing would be–reducto ad absurdum–and that therefore quantum theory must be incomplete. If it’s ridiculous to assume that the cat is in a dead-alive state, then you would have to say the same thing about the nucleus–it’s either decayed or not decayed.
“But that was the problem. All he was ever able to say was that ‘something’ was wrong about the concept–he never said what it could be.
“There have been some rather complex explanations of the phenomena–nothing universally agreed upon. The main theory is something called the Copenhagen interpretation, which I studied for about three hours but I still don’t understand fully. This interpretation has some growing competition involving parallel universes, which I didn’t even bother to read about because it is just a stretch to far for me. What I can say is that a lot of people objected to the Copenhagen interpretation on the grounds that it is non-deterministic and that it includes an undefined measurement process that converts probability functions into non-probabilistic measurements.”
I grimaced here. “Listen Bubba, this is me: Evan. I’ve got a business degree. Try to use words with no more than three syllables and throw in the words “profit margin” from time to time if you want me to have a clue as to what you’re talking about.”
“Sorry. What I’m really saying is that, while most physicists agree that the cat isn’t “fluxing,” as Sally likes to put it, no one is really sure what the heck is going on.”
Bubba took a deep breath, and went on.
“When I was just studying this stuff, I came across some experiment that was supposed to prove the random state of decay. The scientist set up his experiment so that he would not observe the particle directly, but he would rather deduce the condition of the particle from the behavior of another particle.
“But that’s where it went wrong, I think. All he really did was redefine the word, ‘observer.’ An observer becomes, not a conscious entity, but rather an effectee: something whose behavior is in some way modified by the behavior of, or even the existence of, the particle in question.
“What Sally is basically saying is that so long as the decay of the radioactive particle affects the universe in any way whatsoever, the Schrödinger effect cannot occur. And since it’s impossible to build a true black box, virtually everything larger than a subatomic particle should in theory affect the rest of the universe in some way. So therefore, there is no Schrödinger effect.”
“I’m pretty sure that Sally would disagree that that is what she is saying. I’m pretty sure that if Sally were to say that, she would have no idea what she was talking about.”
“Whatever. And, if the Schrödinger effect can’t exist, well, it means something. Maybe it says that, unless something is affecting something else in the universe in some way, it literally can’t be said to exist in our universe, at least mathematically. Maybe what we’re really describing in quantum physics is if the state of something is indeterminable, then, ipso facto, its state can’t be determined and could be in any state. A tautology.”
“So you’re saying that a kid’s fifth grade science fair project is going to debunk quantum physics?”
“No, I don’t think so. I don’t have the math for stuff at this level. I’m just a physics teacher at a community college, after all. All I’m saying is that I think it means something–I’m just not sure what.”
“Well, what are you planning to do about it? And don’t mention anything about whisky this time.”
“I’m going to ask my old physics teacher at State and see what he has to say about it. Maybe he can explain it to me in a way that makes sense.”
After Bubba left and I put Sally to bed, I sat in the living room, wondering about how a ten-year old kid, a ball bearing, some Kool-Aid, a plywood box, and a psychotic cat were going to combine forces to turn quantum physics on its ear.
I looked at Voldemort, sitting on the couch in the living room. He was oblivious to all the fuss he was causing. He just sat there, grooming himself; licking his fur so that he could toss it up into a hairball that I would step in at two in the morning.
Damn, I hated that cat.