Will the Real Schrodinger’s Cat Please Stand Up

The story of Schrodinger’s cat is well known, and one of quantum theory’s most popular phrases on the world stage. You can find his cat on t-shirts, bumper stickers, internet memes and the like. However, few know the origins of the cat, and how it came into being. I suspect many do not understand it beyond the “dead and alive at the same time” catchphrase as well. Not surprisingly, it was Einstein who was at the center of the idea behind Schrodinger’s cat. In a vibrant discussion between the two via letters across the Atlantic, Schrodinger echoed Einstein’s concerns with the following:

Contained in a steel chamber is a Geiger counter prepared with a tiny amount of uranium, so small that in the next hour it is just as probable to expect one atomic decay as none. An amplified relay provides that the first atomic decay shatters a small bottle of prussic acid. This and -cruelly- a cat is also trapped in the steel chamber. According to the wave function for the total system, after an hour, sit venia verbo [pardon my language], the living and dead cat are smeared out in equal measure.

This was the first mention of Schrodinger’s cat, and one would not be incorrect in stating that this paragraph from a letter was where the cat was born. However, the original idea behind the thought experiment was from Einstein and his loathing of the wording of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paper. He expressed his frustrations with Schrodinger with a few simple examples, who then catapulted it into his famous paradox . In this article we’re going to explore not so much the cat, but the meaning behind the thought experiment and what it is meant to convey, while keeping it simple enough for anyone to understand. So next time you see it on a t-shirt, you will be able to articulate the true meaning and know the real Schrodinger’s cat.

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The Quantum Eraser

Richard Feynmann noted more than once that complementarity is the central mystery that lies at the heart of quantum theory. Complementarity rules the world of the very small… the quantum world, and surmises that particles and waves are indistinguishable from one other. That they are one and the same. That it is nonsensical to think of something, or even try to visualize that something as an individual “particle” or a “wave.” That the particle/wave/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is in this sort of superposition, where it is neither particle nor wave. It is only the act of trying to measure what it is that disengages the cloaking device and the particle or wave nature is revealed. Look for a particle, and you’ll find a particle. Look for a wave instead, and instead you’ll find a wave.

Complementarity arises from the limits placed on measuring things in the quantum world with classical measuring devices. It turns out that when you try to measure things that are really really really small, some issues come up… some fundamental issues.  For instance, you can’t really know exactly where a sub-atomic particle is located in space. You can only know where it is within a certain probability, and this probability is distributed through space in the form of a wave. Understanding uncertainty in measurement is key to avoiding the disbelief that hits you when thinking about complementarity.

This article is a continuation of the one linked above. I shall pick up where I left off, in that everyone agrees that measurement on the quantum scale presents some big problems. However, not everyone agrees what these problems mean. Some, such as Albert Einstein, say that just because something cannot be measured doesn’t mean it’s not there. Others, including most mainstream physicists, say the opposite — that if something cannot be measured, it for all practical purposes is not there. We shall continue on our journey by using modern technology to peer into the murky world of complementarity. But first, a quick review.

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About Those Gravitational Waves

It was the year of 1687 when Isaac Newton published “The Principia“, which revealed the first mathematical description of gravity. Newton’s laws of motion along with his description of gravity laid before the world a revolutionary concept that could be used to describe everything from the motions of heavenly bodies to a falling apple. Newton would remain the unequivocal king of gravity for the next several hundred years. But that would all change at the dawn of the 20th century when a young man working at a Swiss patent office began to ask some profound questions. Einstein had come to the conclusion that Newtonian physics was not adequate to describe the findings of the emerging electromagnetic field theories.  In 1905, he published a paper entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” which corrects Newton’s laws so they work when describing the motions of objects near the speed of light. This new description became known as Special Relativity.

It was ‘Special’ because it didn’t deal with gravity or acceleration. It would take Einstein another 10 years to work these two concepts into his relativity theory. He called it General Relativity – an understanding of which is necessary to fully grasp the significance of gravitational waves.

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What Do Bertlmann’s Socks Mean to the Nature of Reality?

One can be reasonably certain that when the title of an article includes the phrase “The Nature of Reality”, thought provoking words must surely lie ahead.  But when that same title seems to inquire about a gentleman’s socks,  coupled with an image of said gentleman’s socks which happen to be mismatched and reflect very loud colors , one might be moved in a direction which suggests the article is not of a serious nature. Perhaps even some sort of parody.

It is my hope that you will be pleasantly surprised with the subtle genius of Irish physicist [John Bell] and his use of socks, washing machines, and a little math to show how we can test one of quantum physic’s most fundamental properties. A property that does indeed reside in the very nature of the reality we are a part of. Few people can say they understand the Bell Inequality down to its most fundamental level. Give me a little of your time, and you will be counted among these few.

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Bertlmann’s Socks and the Nature of Reality

The philosopher in the street, who has not suffered a course in quantum mechanics, is quite unimpressed by the [Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen] correlations. He can point to many examples of similar correlations in everyday life. The case of Bertlmann’s socks is often cited. Dr. Bertlmann likes to wear two socks of different colours. Which colour he will have on a given foot on a given day is quite unpredictable. But when you see that the first sock is pink you can be already sure that the second sock will not be pink. Observation of the first, and experience with Bertlmann, gives the immediate information about the second. There is no accounting for tastes, but apart from that there is no mystery here. And is this [Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen] business just the same?

John Bell began his now famous paper with the above paragraph. The Bell Inequality started off like so many other great theories in science – as a simple thought experiment. Its conclusions were not so simple, however, and would lead the way to the end of Einstein’s idea of local hidden variables, and along with it his hopes for a deterministic universe. In this article, we’re going to look at the Bell inequality in great detail. Our guide will be a chapter from Jim Baggots’ The Quantum Story, as it has one of the best descriptions of Bell’s theory I’ve ever read.

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The Eulogy of Local Hidden Variables

During the early 1900’s, [Einstein] was virtually at war with quantum theory. Its unofficial leader, [Niels Bohr], was constantly rebutting Einstein’s elaborate thought experiments aimed at shooting down quantum theory as a description of reality. It is important to note that [Einstein] did not disagree with the theory entirely, but that he was a realist. And he simply would not believe that reality was statistical in nature, as quantum theory states. He would not deny, for example,  that quantum mechanics (QM) could be used to give a probable location of an electron. His beef was with the idea that the electron doesn’t actually have a location until you try to measure it. QM says the electron is in a sort of “superposition” of states, and that asking what this state is without measurement is a meaningless question.

So [Einstein] would dream up these incredibly complex hypothetical thought experiments with the goal of showing that a superposition could not exist. Now, there is something to be said about [Einstein] and his thought experiments. He virtually dreamed up his relativity theory while working as a patent clerk at the ripe old age of 26 years using them. So when he had a “thought” about something, the whole of the scientific world stopped talking and listened. And such was the case on the 4th of May, 1935.

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The Spooky Nature of Electromagnetic Radiation

Our story begins a little over one hundred years ago in Bern, Switzerland, where a young man employed as a patent clerk went off to work. He took the electric trolley in each day, and each day he would pass an unassuming clock tower. But today was different, it was special. For today he would pose to himself a question – a question whose answer would set forth a fascinating dilemma.

The hands of the clock appeared to move the same no matter if his trolley was stopped or was speeding away from the clock tower. He knew that the electromagnetic radiation which enabled him to see the clock traveled at a finite speed. He also knew that the speed of the light was incredibly great compared to the speed of his trolley. So great that there would not be any noticeable difference in how he saw the hands of the clock move, despite him being at rest or in motion. But what if his trolley was moving at the speed of the reflected light coming from the clock? How would the hands of the clock appear to move? Indeed, they could not. Or if they did, it would not appear so to him. It would appear as if all movement of the clock’s hands had stopped – frozen in an instant of time.  But yet if he looked at the hands of the watch in his pocket, they would appear to move normally. How does one explain the difference between the time of the clock tower versus the time of his watch? And which one was correct?

There was no way for him to know that it would take three years to answer this question. No way for him to know that the answer would eventually lead to the discovery of matter and energy being one and the same. No way to know that he, this underemployed patent clerk making a simple observation, would soon unearth the answer to one of the greatest mysteries that had stumped every mind that came before his – the very nature of time itself.

Now it might have taken Einstein a few years to develop the answer we now know as the Special Theory of Relativity, but it most certainly took him no longer than a few days to realize that Isaac Newton…

must be wrong.

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