“Something Cool” No. 1: Schrödinger’s Cat


Sam Bisno, Editor

Greetings, and welcome to the first installment of a (hopefully) bi weekly segment entitled “Something Cool” (hit me up if you have a better name). Tune into this column every other Thursday to learn about just that – something cool. I’ll break down fascinating concepts into simple terms for your enjoyment. Pretty much anything you can imagine is on the table. Up this week is the infamous thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat.

The proposition is this: imagine a cat. Yes, the cute and cuddly, furry animal we all adore. Now imagine that cat trapped in a box with a radioactive ticker and a vial of hydrocyanic acid. Still with me? No? Okay. Well, the ticker will go off if it senses any single atom decaying within the box, and there is a 50% chance of this happening within an hour. When it does, the ticker will trigger a hammer to be dropped on the flask of acid, shattering it and immediately terminating the existence of the poor feline. However, if it does not detect any radioactivity in the chamber, it will not release the poison, and the cat will continue to live out its miserable existence trapped in a box indefinitely.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Due to a widely accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen interpretation, which states that two possible outcomes of any scenario only stop being a superposition once one of the two is observed, Schrödinger contested that the cat could actually hypothetically be both dead and alive at the same time. Let’s translate that. Basically, until someone comes along, opens the box, and checks the cat’s pulse, it could, in theory, exist in two realities – one in which the radioactive ticker goes off and kills it, and one in which no such event occurs – simultaneously. And there’s no way to prove him wrong. Alternative interpretations, such as the many worlds theory among many, many others, suggest that the cat may actually live out both possible scenarios, but that only one of them occurs in our world, while the other exists detached from out reality. Schrödinger’s musings have served as the vessel for endless debate and experimentation on quantum theory since their birth in 1935. Cool, right?

That’s all for the very first “Something Cool”. Stop by in two weeks to learn how to be in Pythagoras’s cult.

If you have a topic you’d like me to research, or you have a suggestion for future installments, email me at [email protected]