Schrodinger was a sick puppy. If you really look at his experiment, it’s very disturbing. In fact, if you stop to look at it in detail, you’ll find a number of things that the common public gets wrong about it.
1. That cat’s gonna die.
There’s no getting around it, the cat is going to end up dead in this experiment. Thank goodness this is “theoretical” physics, because it’s kind of gruesome.
What Schrodinger envisioned was a cat locked into a box with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a sample of radioactive material, and a hammer. Sounds like a creepy Tom and Jerry cartoon, doesn’t it?
The poison is there to kill the cat. The hammer is to smash the poison. The Geiger counter triggers the hammer. And the radioactivity is to freak everyone out and turn the cat into a zombie if the poison doesn’t work.
No, not really. Sorry.
The point of the radioactive material is that it’s unpredictable. At any point it could trigger the geiger counter, which sets in motion the events that will kill the cat. Or it could sit there undetected for a very long time. And if the hammer never smashes the poison, the cat isn’t necessarily dead.
Oh, eventually the cat’s going to either suffocate, be poisoned, or succumb to radiation poisoning. This is basically the physics version of a kitty snuff film. But the point is that at any given moment the scientists won’t know whether it’s still alive. And scientists hate uncertainty like that.
2. So how does this prove that the cat is both dead and alive? It doesn’t. That’s just nonsense.
You and I know that any living thing is either alive or dead, but can never be both. So why do we nod our heads when brilliant scientists say nonsense like this? It’s because they use fancy words like Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Superposition and we start to question the truths that we know.
In the famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, they stated that any given object can exist in a variety of states. It’s the observer who is important, because the act of observing the object pidgeonholes it into a single state of being.
I’m sure they got a number of medals for that theory, but I’m with Schrodinger in thinking it’s just a fancy way of saying, “Heck, we don’t know.”
The point of his cat experiment is to prove that this isn’t the case, at least not for anything larger than an atom. The cat, quite obviously, is either alive or dead. Saying that it is both at once is just the scientist being lazy – and not wanting to admit that he doesn’t know.
3. You never know what you’ll be famous for.
Shroedinger suggested this whole experiment to disprove the Copenhagen interpretation. I’m certain that he never thought people would take his conclusion seriously, and that eighty years later he’d be known for saying the silly phrase, “The cat is both dead and alive.”
There’s the danger of publishing satire.
The world should just be glad that it didn’t take Jonathan Swift this seriously for his “Modest Proposal.”
p.s. Update, 6 years later: somehow, this has become my most frequently-read blog post. Go figure.