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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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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Retrotechtacular: Gone Fission

This week’s film begins as abruptly as the Atomic Age itself, though it wasn’t produced by General Electric until 1952. No time is wasted in getting to the point of the thing, which is to explain the frightening force of nuclear physics clearly and simply through friendly animations.

[Dr. Atom] from the Bohr Modeling Agency describes what’s going on in his head—the elementary physics of protons, neutrons, and electrons. He explains that atoms can be categorized into families, with uranium weighing in as the heaviest element at the time. While most atoms are stable, some, like radium, are radioactive. This evidently means it stays up all night doing the Charleston and throwing off neutrons and protons in the process of jumping between atomic families. [Dr. Atom] calls this behavior natural transmutation.

Artificial transmutation became a thing in the 1930s after scientists converted nitrogen into oxygen. After a couple of celebratory beers, they decided to fire a neutron at a uranium nucleus just to see what happened. The result is known as nuclear fission. This experiment revealed more about the binding force present in nuclei and the chain reaction of atomic explosions that takes place. It seemed only natural to weaponize this technology. But under the right conditions, a reactor pile made from graphite blocks interspersed with U-235 and -238 rods is a powerful and effective source of energy. Furthermore, radioactive isotopes have advanced the fields of agriculture, industry, medicine, and biochemistry.

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