Sunday, 6 February 2011

The cat in the box...

Now this is hard to understand, but stick with it; after all it’s only a few minutes out of your life (lives), and you can always not have started reading it at all, or not have a computer, or maybe there are no computers, or maybe you didn’t live to turn your computer on – I hope not though, I don’t have that many readers.

Confused? Read on it gets better.

I listened to a radio programme about Schrödinger's cat last week. Well, I have plenty of time to listen to the radio, not like those other me’s at the office, foundry, hospital, bakers, space station, zoo, recording studio, watchmakers, abattoir.

Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment, best described as a paradox, thought up by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Schrödinger was friends with Einstein. I would imagine that their conversations weren’t very easy to follow – Einstein going on about relativity and sticking his tongue out and Schrödinger parrying with entanglement and multiple universe theory

Schrödinger's cat demonstrates what he saw as the problem with quantum mechanics being applied to everyday objects. I can’t begin to understand it, except in really broad terms, but apparently atoms and particles behave in ways that larger objects (like cats) don’t seem to. For instance some particles can be in two places at once and occupy two different spaces at the same time, others can occupy the same space as another particle simultaneously, still others aren’t there at all – but are.

Yes, I know it’s all very confusing.

Anyway, Schrödinger's thought experiment presents a cat that might be alive or dead, depending on an earlier random event (the leakage of some radioactive substance). The cat is inside a box along with the radioactive device and when it is opened the cat appears to be both alive and dead at the same time. Now of course this can’t happen - can it?

Well, according to quantum physics at a sub atomic level it can, so if it can happen in the sub atomic world it should be able to happen in the real world at a real life, full size, level – and who knows, maybe it does.

Schrödinger put forward the theory that at the time of opening the box the cat is both alive and dead because both outcomes have happened simultaneously simply because the opportunity exists; and at that point reality divides in two – one reality becoming the universe where the cat is dead and the other the universe where the cat is alive. So one reality becomes two and another universe is created. His view was this could happen over and over with universes splitting away continually around the various multiple outcomes of entangled random events, creating an infinite number of universes.

Imagine that our lives are splitting into different paths at each decision point or event creating different universes as they split, over and over, infinite realities, infinite opportunities, infinite differences.

Somewhere I’m a great painter, best seller writer, handsome, dictator, priest, paraplegic, mathematician, thin, poet, stillborn, athlete, bald, scientist, train driver. Somewhere I am anything and everything and nothing at all – and so are you.

Comforting? Scary? All those other selves thinking that they are the only one, except I know that I’m the only one and they know with equal certainty that they are the only one(s). How can there be more than one of me, more than one of you?


Okay you can stop thinking now. I told you that it was hard.

I bet Dali got it though. He called the photograph above Atomicus - just see those cats divide.


  1. I prefer the Copenhagen interpretation, although it doesn't really offer any explinations. The many worlds stuff seems more like philosophy that physics, since it can never be proved. Either way it doesn't really matter, since things are as they are.

  2. Actually I think the many worlds thing can be proved... you dream don't you?

  3. Catherine Halls-Jukes facebooked: tired to follow it !!!!

  4. Andy Bickerdike commented on Facebook:
    Can I swap then with another me?

  5. Nick Jennings commented on Facebook:

    Andy, surely Schrödinger's cat is about the influence of observation, until the box is opened the cat could be alive or dead, you have no way of determining that, you can surmise but have no empirical truth. So Schrödinger is questioning determinism. Maybe William James should be the start point of this particular journey?

  6. Mike King commented on Facebook:

    I heard part of that programme too. Fascinating stuff, although I can't get my head around the concept - the cat is either dead or alive. The fact I don't know what state it is in doesn't imply it is in both or am I being too logical? Turns out the late father of E the lead singer of the Eels was a Physicist repsonsible for the other worlds quantum theory. BBC4 did a documentary on him a while back (or look here )

  7. Colin Tickle commented on Facebook:

    "I wondered if we were in for a schrodingers cat lesson when I saw the title of this blog. I'm glad we were, thanks for taking the time to write it... now you'd best be off to paint and write or you'll never be a grand master or a bestseller."