If Erwin Schrödinger had ever owned a cat, it’s fairly certain he would never have locked it inside a booby-trapped box to find out if it would live or die. From all accounts he just wasn’t the type of man to torture pets.
The physicist’s cat (whether it existed or not) has become tremendously famous because, for almost eight decades, it has provided a non-mathematical window into the misty theoretical realm of quantum mechanics — a window which, paradoxically, provides both greater understanding and also (through some basic misunderstandings) greater ignorance.
In other words, the paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat is not just within, but also without, as it encompasses the thought experiment itself.
Conceived to refute the uncertainty principle (which maintains that observing something influences results), it is now popularly interpreted to do the exact opposite, to support it, in fact. This has not only led to the propagation of a whole new branch of pseudo-New Age science, but it also intrinsically illustrates how something can inhabit two probabilities simultaneously, which is a paradox no matter how you look at.
That’s the beauty of Schrö-dinger’s Cat, and that’s what likely explains its longevity in popular culture.
The thought experiment’s metaphor piques the imagination because it can apply to every uncertainty in human experience — not just those involving subatomic particles and cats.
Take the question of Johansen’s Cabin, for instance. After a prolonged measurable absence, during which any number of random events occurred unobserved, the cabin was simultaneously in perfect condition and also utterly destroyed.
As a matter of interest, an earlier version of this experiment ultimately revealed that the cabin was in a state of utter destruction (by fire, as it happened) when direct interaction by observers eliminated the probability that it hadn’t been harmed by anything and was perfectly safe.
Take, also, the example of Harper’s Hidden Agenda.
Everyone could see that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a box, but as long as he was only the head of a minority government, he kept it firmly closed.
For more than five years, what the box held was both good for Canada and bad for Canada.
It both fostered the arts and sciences and eliminated them.
It cleaned up the natural environment and polluted it. It bolstered unions and labour rights and it crushed them. It supported the poor and unemployed and it punished them for being poor and unemployed.
It spent taxpayers’ money wisely and it wasted it. It protected the sovereign interests of Canadian citizens and betrayed them to foreign governments and huge transnational corporations. As long as the box remained closed, Harper’s true vision for the future of Canada was something we could all embrace wholeheartedly and run from in terror and disgust.
The problem with Schrödinger’s Cat is that in the end, it’s only supposed to be an amusing thought experiment and so the longer you leave that poor animal in its dangerous little box, the more certain you can be that you’ve killed it. After all, above every powerful law of physics, quantum or otherwise, there’s the strongest, most implacable of all observed laws: Murphy’s — to wit: what can go wrong will and at the worst possible time.
Therefore, any contemplation of something like the question of Johansen’s Cabin can cumulatively become tinged with pessimism, especially when considering all the random events that could affect the place — the squirrels, the bears, the rampaging humans and the out-of-control fires.
The same applied to Harper’s Hidden Agenda, but that’s all over with now. Now that Harper has secured a majority of seats (albeit, paradoxically, with a minority of votes) he has felt it safe to open the box, revealing that the cat is indeed dead.
The formerly hidden agenda is shown to be so anti-union, anti-CBC, anti-arts, anti-science, anti-environment, anti-poor, anti-Atlantic Canada, anti-immigration, anti-democratic and anti-commonsense that Canada will be lucky to have any of these left by the time the current government is finished doing what it wants to do.
Would that the box had remained forever closed.
And the question of Johansen’s Cabin? That’s the good news. It managed to beat Murphy’s Law. For once, the cat lives.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.