Feline Blue – Part 4 of 3

Click HERE to download Feline Blue as a PDF

I find publishing the story Feline Blue to be somewhat frightening to me, not so much because I dare to come up with a solution to a problem that some of the best minds of our time have tried to tackle, but that I came up with a solution that is so freaking simple and obvious that there HAS to be something wrong with it.  I dislike putting something out into the world that makes me look like an idiot unless I deliberately CHOOSE to look like an idiot.  Quantum theory is loaded with paradoxes that people love to talk about.  Who am I, a librarian, to come along and say that the paradoxes don’t exist because the zero button on their calculator is sticking?

Still, to me, the logic behind my argument is inescapable.  It’s the simple concept expressed in computer science (in which I have my undergraduate degree) as GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

In this case, the fundamental supposition behind Schrödinger’s cat simply hasn’t been explored.  It really isn’t possible to build a proper box to put the cat in.

From what I’ve been able to find, Schrödinger never referred to the box that he wanted to put the cat in as a “black box,” as I refer to it in the story.  According to Wikipedia, a black box is a technical term for a device, system or object when it is viewed in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge required of its internal workings.  Looking at it from this perspective, Schrödinger’s box isn’t a true black box, as we know exactly how it works.  It’s just the result of the internal workings that is kept from our view.  I still think the basic idea behind the black box is sufficient to get my point across.

And my point ultimately boils down to Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect.  More specifically, it has to do with the idea that virtually everything in the universe is in some way connected to or linked to virtually everything else in some way.

The Butterfly Effect basically says that dynamic systems (something I think our universe as a whole could be described as) are very sensitive to a changes in the initial conditions.  Thus, the tiny puff of breeze caused by the batting of a butterfly’s wings can cause a change in the dynamic system of weather in such a way as to cause hurricanes in areas of the world that are prone to them.  For Schrödinger’s cat, I take the Butterfly Effect to its most extreme, reasonably assuming that a cat being either dead or alive would have a profound effect on initial conditions, and that certainly no simple box could be manifested to prevent the state of the cat from affecting the world around it.

The cat’s condition could certainly be derived from x-rays or infrared on a simple box.  More importantly, the cat possesses a gravitational field, and, while this gravitational field is incredibly minute, it is still an initial condition that is going to affect the position of molecules outside of the box.  There is no known way to block a gravitational field.  Thus, there is no known way to keep the cat’s state from affecting the world around it in some way.  And, so long as the cat’s state is affecting the world around it in some way, then its state could, in theory, be deduced without having to open the box.  My contention is that so long as the cat can not be completely cut off from the rest of the universe, that it cannot be in a state of quantum indeterminacy.  The universe as a whole (minus the cat) could only be as it is BECAUSE of the cat and because of the cat’s state.

Okay, if we accept that last sentence, MUST we accept that the cat can’t still be in a dead/alive state?  After all, we can’t detect that quadrillionth of a centimeter fluctuations in the air molecules around the box because of the cat’s gravitational field.  We can’t see gravity waves.  We, as sense limited humans, have no way of detecting if we’ve just murdered a cat for no really good reason.

Here we have to look at our definition of the word, “observer.”  In quantum physics, the lay person traditionally thinks of observer as some dude or dudette looking at the cat.  In reality, no such definition is clarified. (See this article.)  I define observer, as I said in the story, as an affectee, that is, ANYTHING that is affected by the cat’s state.  To me, this makes the most sense, as the human mind is only a small part of universe of other things affected by the cat’s state.  I see no particular reason why a cognizant mind is necessary to bring the cat out of its undetermined state.  This is debatable, however, as it is only my definition.  My definition, however, leads to a rational conclusion, whereas competing definitions lead to paradoxes.  You make the choice.

So, since this is my article, and since I dislike paradoxes in my physics, let’s take a further look at the concept of affectee.

Obviously, a cat is not the only thing that affects the rest of the universe (although he might like to think so).  By my previous arguments, anything large enough to possess a gravitational field, that is, possessing mass, does so as well.

So, what DOESN’T necessarily affect the rest of the universe?  Well, only things which possess no mass.  In other words, particles small enough only to exist on the quantum scale.

What can we say about a massless particles which are absolutely not affecting anything else in the universe?

Well, we can say that they must exist, and we can say this because every time we’ve bashed particle A into particle B, we’ve always gotten particles C and Not C before.  So we know that these particles are out there somewhere.

AND, if by using a clever trap we know that exactly one of the particles must be in our pickle jar, we know that we have trapped is either particle C or Not C.

But we don’t know anything else.

The particle is affecting NOTHING in the universe.  From the universe’s perspective, it might as well not exist.  In fact, if we assume that the universe doesn’t really give a shit, we can say that, from the universe’s perspective, the particle is not even part of the universe.

The ONLY way the particle has been defined is mathematically.  And how, mathematically, would one define a particle that effectively is not even part of the universe but MUST be C or Not C.

Well, pure mathematics is great at determining probabilities, but I’m not sure that it is really equipped for defining the undefinable.  Given a particle that is both not part of the universe and could only be one of two things, I can easily imagine mathematics coming out and saying that the particle is both at once.

A computer programmer or logician wouldn’t define it that way, but mathematics doesn’t use the same symbol sets.  And particle physics is definitely a favorite area for mathematicians.

So, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the paradoxical state of the quantum particle being two things at once is a mathematical illusion.  I know that this idea has been suggested before, and I know that numerous physicists have said that it is indeed in both states, but I also know that stating that the particle is either C OR Not C (not a paradox) or stating that the particle is both C AND Not C (paradox) makes absolutely no difference as far as the universe is concerned.  The universe doesn’t care about the particle until the particle somehow interacts with it and defines itself.  Until that happens, I prefer to define the unknown state in a way that doesn’t lead to a paradox, thank you very much.

Voldemort in the story is based on a real cat, whose current state I don’t know because we gave him away, hoping that he would be less of a pain in the ass to people who would pay more attention to him.

The institution of South Indiana State University is entirely fictional.  I am of Finnish ancestry, and I used to wear a sweat shirt with the word SISU on it.  Sisu is a Finnish word meaning, roughly, gumption, or, as I used to like to describe it, “courage, guts, and a little bit nuts.”  People would ask me all the time what sisu stood for, and I would always say South Indiana State University.  Call it a rather lame inside joke.

The fact that my wife is dead in the story means nothing.  The only reason there is no wife is that she wasn’t necessary for the plot.  The real wife is in a definitely alive state, and I love her dearly.

Feline Blue – Part 3 of 3

A Cat!  That's Blue!Here is the final installment of the Feline Blue series.  Part 1 and Part 2 have set up the problem and suggested a solution.  Part 3 merely finishes out the story.  I would like to thank the person from whom I stole this blue cat image.  I would, indeed, thank them directly if I had any idea who they were.

May all of your cats remain the color of their choice.


Feline Blue – Part 3 of 3

Finally, the day of the great experiment came along. The first and most difficult chore was getting the cat into the cat carrier.

Voldemort was an indoor cat, and when he saw that green carrier with the cage in the front, he knew that something was about to happen that he wouldn’t like at all.

So he hid. He has a LOT of hiding places, and he’s smart enough to create a new one the moment we find one of his old ones.

But the point is we always find him. Every time. He has never once failed to get into that carrier once we determined to put him into it. So, why does he keep trying?

I wore a leather coat and gloves. The last time I tried to put him into the carrier he managed to draw blood–quite a feat for an animal without any claws.

We found him behind a fish tank that hadn’t had any fish in it for the past five years. The tank had a cupboard underneath it, and the cupboard didn’t have a backing. To Voldemort, this looked like a perfect hiding spot. To us, this made it easier than usual. All we had to do was open the cupboard doors and nab him. He was so surprised that those doors actually opened that he didn’t think quickly enough to try to run away again.

Getting him into the carrier was a different matter. He had a tail and what seemed like about eight paws that combined forces to keep himself from getting in there. Sally and I likewise combined forces against him. While he hissed and yowled, I held the dangerous end with the teeth, and she stuffed in the tail and the hind legs. He went in easily after that–the front legs alone just didn’t have the movement or the strength to stop the inevitable.

So we lugged the black box contraption, the obligatory three-panel storyboard, and the cat out to the van, respectively. We remembered the Kool-Aid at the last minute. Bubba had said earlier that he wanted to see how everything was going to work, but he said that he’d meet us there.

The school administration decided to hold the Science Fair in the school cafeteria this year. Apparently, a particularly enthusiastic volcano had flowed its simulated molten contents all over the gymnasium floor last year and the gym teacher threw a fit. It was decided that the floor of the school cafeteria was far better suited for dealing with unidentifiable and possibly toxic substances.

Once we got to the school, we pulled out the black box contraption, the obligatory three-panel storyboard, the Kool-Aid, and the cat. We found our table, set up our display and then had to tackle the job of getting the cat OUT of the carrier. Voldy had apparently decided that, as much as he hated the carrier, at least it was something familiar to him. There were a lot of strange sounds and the smell of volcanic sulfur was in the air, and Voldy had decided that maybe the carrier wasn’t such a bad place after all.

Gravity ultimately won. We took the carrier and turned it sideways over the black box. We shook it a little, and Voldy, having no claws to speak of and not a lot to hold on to, eventually slid out with an ungraceful thump.

The black box was also a safe place that Voldy was familiar with, but he hadn’t liked a thing that had happened to him in the last half hour, and I don’t think he liked the idea of being locked up again. He looked up at us with pleading eyes and gave out a plaintive, “mew,” deciding on a far more passive tactic then any he had ever tried before. I felt my scar ache, and quickly slammed the lid down over him, suppressing the urge to laugh diabolically after I did so.

Once we had everything set up, I looked around and started to feel a little worried. Everyone else’s experiments we colorful. Ours was a misshapen black box. The box didn’t even have any exciting projections or knobs to twist and turn, just a single hole. All the exciting mechanisms were inside, hidden from view.

Just before the judging was to begin, Bubba showed up. Someone was with him.

“This is Dr. John Mazur, from South Indiana State University,” he explained. “He used to be my physics instructor there. I never went for my doctorate, of course, but he also teaches in the doctoral physics program.”

I gazed at him with a look of dumb incredulity.

“Hello,” he said, tipping his cap. “How are you?”

“I’m Evan,” I replied. “Bubba, can I have a word with you?”

I grabbed Bubba by his arm without waiting for an answer and walked out of earshot of the scientist.

“Bubba, what the hell is he doing here?”

“I invited him. I told him about the black box problem and he got interested.”

“But this is just a fifth grade science fair experiment. We’re just going to dump Kool-Aid on a cat. And that’s only if we’re lucky.”

“Look, he’s here. He’s quiet. He doesn’t eat much. What the hell is your problem?”

I stopped. I felt a rock in the pit of my stomach.

“I don’t know. It’s just the quantum physics part of it. I don’t like the idea of going against a bunch of PhDs and trying to prove that they’re all wrong because of a guy in blue tights and a cape.”

“Just relax, will you? Sally hasn’t proved anything. And even if she did, it wasn’t something that everyone else hasn’t already suspected. All she’s done is maybe come up with a new angle on it. Now come on, it looks like the judging is starting.”

# # # #

After going back and greeting Dr. Mazur more humanly, we watched the other experiments in action. They weren’t all volcanoes, of course. In reality, there were only two volcanoes in the whole room. There was one experiment where a student had turned a plant on its side to make it grow upwards. There was another one that used a prism and a flashlight.

One of the more interesting experiments tested the effects of coffee on teeth. The kid used six real teeth (his dad was a dentist). He placed two in regular coffee, two in decaf, and two in water as a control. The result could have been used as an advertisement for one of those toothpastes with, “extra whitening.” It also could have been effectively used by the anti-coffee lobby, should anyone choose to form one.

When the judges got to us, Sally went into her spiel. The judges, who were in fact just all of the fifth grade teachers in the school, seemed a little mystified by the whole thing. I doubted that most elementary school teachers delved too deeply into quantum physics as they earned their education degrees.

Sally explained the concept pretty well though, and the teachers seemed to know what she was talking about when she finished her preliminary presentation.

With a dramatic pause, Sally dropped the ball bearing into the tube.

Nothing happened, which was exactly what was supposed to happen.

Sally turned back to her audience, and was about to talk some more when suddenly, a muffled yowl emitted from the box. The box abruptly jumped almost an inch to the left, and a hissing sound (also distinctly muffled) could be heard.

The audience laughed. Little Sally looked mortified and ready to burst into tears. But then she shook herself, took one big sniffle, and boldly went on.

“The effect described in the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment can not happen in reality, because it is impossible to build a black box for real.”

Sally turned to look at us with venom in her eyes. “Although I think my dad and Mr. Bubba could have done a little better job than this.” The audience again laughed.

She looked again at the judges. “Anyway, the cat is not in a state of quantum flux, because if an alien existed who could see into the box, they would always be able to tell if the cat were blue or not without opening it.”

Then, she suddenly smiled. “In fact, in this case we don’t even need an alien. We know that the cat is blue because, even though we cannot see him, we heard him when the Kool-Aid was poured on him. Our sense of hearing tells us that the cat is blue, even though we can’t see it. We could also guess the cat’s color when the black box moved, and I think that just comes from our sense of knowing that cats don’t like having Kool-Aid poured on them.”

The audience laughed appreciably and applauded.

The physicist from the university did not applaud, but he smiled at her and nodded.

Sally opened the front of the box, and we could indeed see a blue cat–a very angry and scared looking blue cat–staring back at us from behind the cage. We closed the box again to let the cat suffer in peace.

When all of the teachers and parents moved on to mold experiment at the next table, I approached the physics professor.

“So, Dr. Mazur, what do you think of Sally’s interpretation of quantum theory?”

Still smiling, Dr. Mazur shrugged. “I don’t know. I really don’t have the math for it.”

I closed my eyes, exasperated.

“But,” the scientist continued, “I think the kid may have a point.”

Dr. Mazur tipped his cap at me, then at Bubba. With Sally, he removed his cap entirely and bowed to her. He then turned on his heals and walked from the room.

# # # #

We managed to get the now blue and white cat out of the box and home again with a minimum of bloodshed. Sally got an A on the project, with several positive comments that proved conclusively that her teacher didn’t really have a clue as to what the experiment was at all about.

Harvard University failed to call us to tell us that Sally’s experiment had set the world of quantum physics on its ear. I never heard from Dr. Mazur again. So life went back to almost normal in our humble abode.

I say almost, because we also leaned that blue Kool-Aid acts as an excellent hair die, and Voldy went around stained for several months before he managed to lick all the blue hairs off and upchuck them in blue hairballs for me to step in.

Damn, I hate that cat.

Feline Blue – Part 2 of 3

A Cat!  That's Blue!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?”

“I guess.”

“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.

Feline Blue – Part 1 of 3

A Cat.  That's Blue!

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?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

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.”