Tag: physics

What Is Schrödinger’s Cat?

If you’ve spent time around physics types, listened to media appearances by science educators like Michio Kaku and Brian Greene, or even watched episodes of The Big Bang Theory, you’ve almost certainly heard of Schrödinger’s cat.

But what is it, why is it important, and what does it really have to do with cats? Most importantly, if you’re a cat lover, does it involve harming cats?

I promise you, if you stick with me and have a little patience, you’ll not only understand Schrödinger’s cat, but a hugely important element of physics will be demystified for you.

QuantumEntanglementCat

Let’s take a step back. First, we all learned in school that Isaac Newton was the “father of physics,” and Albert Einstein came along about two centuries later, revolutionizing physics by adding to Newton’s work and coming up with his own, more accurate model.

To this day, Newton and Einstein are in a class by themselves among physicists because they single-handedly changed everything we know about the natural world.

We all remember the famous story about Newton watching an apple fall from a tree, wondering why the apple fell down instead of up, and eventually developing his theory of gravity. Newton went on to develop his theories, which describe everything we see in the natural world, from that apple falling to the complexities of orbital mechanics.

Everything seemed to work perfectly, until a physicist named Max Planck came along in 1905 and published a paper introducing quantum physics.

What is quantum physics?

Now the word “quantum” has been incorporated into practically everything these days and has been so utterly abused as a marketing buzzword, a way to add a veneer of science to things that are otherwise nonsense, that it’s essentially a meaningless word to most people. Practically everything is described as quantum, from deodorants to claims of psychic telepathy.

But the gist of it is this: While Newtonian physics does indeed describe everything we see with our own eyes accurately, it does not accurately describe things at the subatomic level.

In other words, there are two sets of rules in our universe. Everything larger than an atom behaves according to one set of rules in our universe, and everything the size of an atom or smaller — which includes subatomic particles — behaves according to a different set of rules.

Not only that, but at the quantum scale, things get really, really weird.

They behave in ways that are completely at odds with everything we intuitively understand about reality, so much so that even Einstein himself was disturbed by what he found. Einstein famously described quantum entanglement — the ability of two different objects to be linked and share properties, regardless of how far apart they are — as “spooky action at a distance.”

So what the hell does this have to do with cats?

Ready to get even weirder?

Thanks to Planck, Einstein, John Stewart Bell and innumerable physicists — who are still studying these concepts, and still winning Nobel prizes for them in 2022 — we know that two particles can be “entangled” and will remain that way no matter how far apart they are.

You could take one particle, transport it 10,000 light years away, and it would still be entangled with the other particle.

But it gets even stranger than that.

Schrödingerscat

Our entangled particles have certain properties, such as their spin, which are unknowable until we measure them. In fact, they exist simultaneously in all possible states until the moment when we observe them, at which time the wave function “collapses.” It’s called quantum superposition.

Not only that, but when we measure one particle in an entangled pair, the second particle’s wave also “collapses” (settles on a certain state) and we know its spin instantaneously, regardless of how far apart the particles are.

If I measure an entangled particle here on Earth and find its spin is up, I know the corresponding particle that’s been moved to, say, Epsilon Eridani, 10.47 light years away, is spin down.

You can see why this would be profoundly disturbing to scientists. It violates the speed of light, and it’s completely counterintuitive. How can the mere act of observation change something in the physical world, and how can it change something else potentially thousands or millions of light years away? Everything we know, every gut instinct we have, screams that this should not be true.

But it is true.

These aren’t just ideas kicked around by scientists smoking the sticky stuff, by the way. They’ve been proven experimentally many times over. No matter how much we might dislike the idea, no matter how weird or spooky it may seem, it’s true.

Schrödingerdeadalive

Enter Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist. He devised a thought experiment that goes like this:

Imagine you have a sealed box with a cat inside. Inside the box are two buttons: One button feeds the cat a yummy treat, the other button kills the cat. There is an equal (50/50) chance of the cat pressing either button. (Other versions use a more complex system involving radioactive material, or poison, that could kill the cat, again with a 50/50 chance.)

We don’t know if the cat is alive or dead until the moment we open the box. So in this thought experiment, we can think of the cat as both alive and dead until we “measure” or “observe” by opening the box.

That’s what’s happening in the above example of quantum entanglement and the idea that a particle is neither in one position or another until we measure it.

Why is measurement the key here? No one knows. Scientists are still arguing about that. Some believe that there’s some special quality of consciousness that interacts with the universe, so the mere act of observing something can change physical reality.

Others scoff at that idea and insist we’re missing something, that it’s not the act of observation that determines the final state of a particle at all.

Regardless, the important thing here for cat lovers is that Schrödinger’s cat is just a thought experiment.

Schrödinger never had a cat, as far as anyone has been able to ascertain, and no one has used an actual cat in an attempt to reconstruct the thought experiment because 1) You wouldn’t learn anything, since cats are not subatomic particles, and 2) Anyone intelligent enough to be a physicist is presumably intelligent enough to understand how absurd, pointless and cruel it would be to use a living being in an experiment that can’t give you any answers.

For those of us who aren’t geniuses, here’s Sheldon explaining the thought experiment as a child (in Young Sheldon) and as an adult (in The Big Bang Theory):

FurryGate: Rogan, Boebert, Greene Drag Cats Into Politics With Claims Of Litter Boxes In Schools

The physicist Michio Kaku was a guest on a radio show and was answering a question about possible intelligent life visiting Earth when Joe Rogan interrupted him.

“The three pyramids are aligned with Orion’s belt,” Rogan said. “Do your research, man. Look it up.”

Rogan, who was into 9/11 truther conspiracies at the time, went on to explain how the Egyptians couldn’t possibly have built the pyramids on their own, and that aliens helped them align the positions of the giant structures to correspond to important celestial features.

Here was Kaku, one of the brightest minds in human history, co-founder of string field theory, a man whose textbooks are required reading for PhD-level physics students, getting talked over and “educated” by a pothead who rose to fame hosting a game show in which he forced contestants to eat cockroaches.

I thought of that cringey interaction this week after reading about Rogan insisting school districts are accommodating kids who identify as cats by replacing toilets with litter boxes in school bathrooms.

Rogan’s source was rock solid if you’re the type of person who thinks ancient aliens traveled thousands of lights to the Earth of deep antiquity to teach human beings how to stack stones on top of each other: Rogan’s friend’s wife, who works at the school district, insisted the litter box story is true.

Like previous claims of school administrators gone mad in service to alleged furries, Rogan’s claim was intentionally nebulous and unverifiable. He didn’t name the school, the district or the teacher. We have to take his word for it.

If you like that sort of thing, I have good news for you! Rogan’s in great company.

Marjorie Taylor Greene — the congresswoman who once claimed “Jewish space lasers” were responsible for California wildfires, the shining testament to US education standards who warned “the Gazpacho police” will imprison patriotic Americans, the genteel stateswoman who said scientists are creating fake meat in “Peach tree dishes” to “zap” Americans — has also warned of the apparently widespread practice of furry school children shitting in litter boxes.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Lauren Boebert has co-signed the cat conspiracy, telling donors that evil cat-loving people are hell bent on destroying wholesome American values by unleashing cat-identified children on an innocent and unsuspecting public.

Say it enough and it becomes true

The claims have been repeated so many times that they’ve spread to school board meetings and state legislatures across the country, perpetuated by gerontocratic leaders who think The Onion is a real news source. Two current gubernatorial candidates, in Colorado and Minnesota, have also repeated the claim.

“Schools are not disclosing that they are allowing children who identify as snakes, cats, whatever, they’re providing litter boxes for the [student] cats,” a Tennessee state representative said during a hearing in September. “And obviously it’s very disruptive to the learning process. If a child has that much of a self-identity issue they probably need a different environment, and it’s creating a lot of anxiety, a lot of confusion with the children who are boys and girls.”

“But Big Buddy,” you might be thinking, “I thought you said PITB was apolitical and you’re a moderate?”

It is, and I am.

I dislike all ideology equally because it invites people to abdicate their responsibility to think for themselves. I believe our two-party system and the divisiveness it fuels could be the ruin of our great nation, particularly at a time when polls show up to half the US population expects to fight in an ideologically-driven civil war. I worry that we are doing precisely what our enemies want by feuding amongst ourselves. Indeed, we know for a fact that “troll farms” in countries like Russia and China exist to sow the seeds of division and crank up poisonous political rhetoric online.

But I’m also against pure, abject, mind-boggling, depressing, Idiocracy-style stupidity and the idea that anything is true if someone says it is. Neither party has a monopoly on this kind of thing.

In particular, I’m not a fan of injecting cats into the American culture wars. (Although it’s not just cats at this point. A Texas school district was forced to deny rumors that administrators were allowing “furries” to eat out of dog bowls in school cafeterias.)

We already fail these innocent creatures in myriad ways, from allowing declawing and doing little to improve weak animal welfare laws, to tolerating the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable for people to shoot cats with arrows, BBs and real firearms as some grotesque form of entertainment.

Now people want to use cats as the rope in a perverse game of cultural tug-of-war, which could further degrade their status and lead to more proxy violence against them.

Cats are vulnerable, and are already targets of hate

Violent criminals, including the perpetrators of the recent mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, often get their start by killing cats before “graduating” to humans.

Cats are also frequent victims of redirected anger, with studies showing they’re abused and killed in domestic violence situations because they’re viewed as extensions of the feminine, or simply because killing them causes emotional distress to the people who care for them.

Of domestic violence victims who have pets, more than 70 percent of their abusers also took their rage out on the victims’ pets.

Politics have pervaded and infected so many things, cats and dogs are now staked to territory on either side of the political fault lines.

So how long will it be before an Alex Jones type claims the government is using cats to spy on Americans? The best conspiracy theories always have a nugget of truth to them, after all, and in the 1960s the CIA tried — and failed, spectacularly — to use cats implanted with transmitters to spy on Soviet officials.

How long before a Boebert or a Greene tells a crowd that it’s their patriotic duty to shoot “liberal cats” on sight? How long before Tucker Carlson follows up one of his thrilling UFO/crop circle/cow mutilation investigative specials with a breathless exclusive about America-hating cats?

“Why do so many cats want to see America burn? Why do cats like to line their litter boxes with the American flag? Does the government allow cats to vote? Hey, I’m just asking questions!”

If you think that’s outlandish, I’d point out that we’ve been there, done that.

Tucker Swanson Carlson has already claimed that “decadent rich people” who “detest the country” like to plot America’s downfall from cat cafes. Those evil America-haters stroke cats and sip lattes while “working through the night to destroy” our great nation, Carlson told his viewers. I’m not making this up.

Europeans almost extirpated domestic cats in the middle ages when people were convinced they carried the Black Plague, and cats had even bigger targets on their backs after the Inquisition’s most overzealous prosecutors insisted felines were used in Satanic rituals.

Likewise, my Google News alert for cat-related articles shows a depressing, never-ending feed of stories about people chugging beer and shooting cats with BB guns, mystery killers strangling neighborhood kitties and “hunters” who put arrows through these sentient, innocent animals who have the mental and emotional capacity of three-year-old human children.

And there’s already plenty of nonsense online about how our choice of pet reflects our political beliefs, as well as unhinged rants about the kind of people who prefer cats. There are even research studies about the intersection of politics and attitudes toward companion animals, and research shows certain people consider cats “liberal” because they don’t adhere to social hierarchies and don’t recognize authority.

Is it really a stretch to imagine some 85, deep into a case of Miller High Life, taking target practice at neighborhood cats because he sees them as evil, feminine, America-hating animals? Are we sure it doesn’t happen already?

Politics really does ruin everything.