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Schrödinger's cat is a seemingly paradoxical thought experiment devised by Erwin Schrödinger that attempts to illustrate the incompleteness of the theory of quantum mechanics when going from subatomic to macroscopic systems. The experiment proposes:
- A cat is placed in a sealed box. Attached to the box is an apparatus containing a radioactive nucleus and a canister of poison gas. The experiment is set up so that there is a 50% chance of the nucleus decaying in one hour. If the nucleus decays, it will emit a particle that triggers the apparatus, which opens the canister and kills the cat. (According to quantum mechanics, the unobserved nucleus is described as a superposition (mixture) of "decayed nucleus" and "undecayed nucleus".) However, when the box is opened the experimenter sees only a "decayed nucleus/dead cat" or a "undecayed nucleus/living cat."
- The question is: when does the system stop existing as a mixture of states and become one or the other? The purpose of the experiment is to illustrate that quantum mechanics is incomplete without some rules to describe when the wavefunction collapses and the cat becomes dead or remains alive instead of a mixture of both.
Contrary to popular belief, Schrödinger did not intend this thought experiment to indicate that he believed that the dead-alive cat would actually exist; rather he considered the quantum mechanical theory to be incomplete and not representative of reality in this case. Since a cat clearly must either be alive or dead (there is no state between alive and dead, e.g. half-dead) surely the same must be true of the nucleus. It must be either decayed or not decayed.
The original article appeared in the German magazine Naturwissenschaften ("Natural Sciences") in 1935: E. Schrödinger: "Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik" ("The present situation in quantum mechanics"), Naturwissenschaften, 48, 807, 49, 823, 50, 844 (November 1935). It was intended as a discussion of the EPR article published by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen in the same year. Apart from introducing the cat, Schrödinger also coined the term "entanglement" (German: Verschränkung) in his article.
In the Copenhagen interpretation, a system stops being a mixture of states and becomes either one or the other when an observation takes place. This experiment makes apparent the fact that the nature of measurement, or observation, is not well defined in this interpretation. Some interpret the experiment to mean that while the box is closed, the system simultaneously exists in a mixed superposition of the states "decayed nucleus/dead cat" and "undecayed nucleus/living cat", and that only when the box is opened and an observation performed does the wave function collapse into one of the two states. More intuitively, some feel that the "observation" is taken when a particle from the nucleus hits the detector. However (and this is a key point of the thought experiment), there isn't any rule within the Copenhagen interpretation that says one way or the other, and this interpretation of quantum mechanics is incomplete without such rules and explanations for how such rules come to exist.
Everett many-worlds interpretation & consistent histories
In the Everett many-worlds interpretation, which does not single out observation as a special process, both states persist, but decohere. When an observer opens the box, he becomes entangled with the cat, so observer-states corresponding to the cat being alive and dead are formed, and each can have no interaction with the other. The same mechanism of quantum decoherence is also important for the interpretation in terms of Consistent Histories. Only the "dead cat" or "alive cat" can be a part of a consistent history in this neo-Copenhagen interpretation.
Curiously, all of this has some practical use in quantum computing and quantum cryptography. It is possible to send light that is in a superposition of states down a fiber optic cable. Placing a wiretap in the middle of the cable which intercepts and retransmits the transmission will collapse the wavefunction (in the Copenhagen interpretation, "perform an observation") and cause the light to fall into one state or another. By performing statistical tests on the light received at the other end of the cable, one can tell whether it remains in the superposition of states or has already been observed and retransmitted. In principle, this allows the development of communication systems that cannot be tapped without being noticed at the other end. This experiment (which can be performed, though a workable quantum cryptographic communications system which can transmit large quantities of data has not yet been constructed) also illustrates that "observation" in the Copenhagen interpretation has nothing to do with consciousness, in that a perfectly unconscious wiretap will cause the statistics at the end of the wire to be different.
An interesting variant of the Schrödinger's Cat experiment known as the quantum suicide machine has been proposed by cosmologist Max Tegmark. It asks the question, what does the Schrödinger's Cat experiment look like from the point of view of the cat, and argues that this question may be able to distinguish between the Copenhagen interpretation and many worlds. Another variant on the experiment is Wigner's friend.
Physicist Stephen Hawking once exclaimed, "When I hear of Schrödinger's cat, I reach for my gun," paraphrasing Hermann Göring's anti-intellectual quote, "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver", which Göring quoted from a play by German playwright and Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst.
Schrödinger's cat in fiction
- "Schrodinger's Cat" is a science fiction story written by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1974. It appeared in The Compass Rose, published in 1982. The story deals with Schrödinger's Cat, stoves and quantum decoherence.
- The Schrödinger's Cat trilogy is the name commonly given to a trilogy of science fiction/conspiracy theory novels written by Robert Anton Wilson. It consists of The Universe Next Door , The Trick Top Hat and The Homing Pigeons .
- The Unadulterated Cat, by Terry Pratchett and Gray Joliffe , is an homage to all types of cats and discusses this concept.
- In Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett, the cat Greebo is placed in a box and enters a superposition of being Alive, Dead and Bloody Furious.
- In the manga of Hellsing, there is a werewolf named Schrödinger.
- In the roguelike computer game NetHack, monsters known as quantum mechanics may carry a chest containing Schrödinger's cat. When opened, there is a 50% chance of finding it dead and a 50% chance of it jumping out alive.
- A cat named Schrodinger appears as a semi-recurring character in Checkerboard Nightmare, a web comic by Kristofer Straub . Schrodinger can see all possible states of existence at once, and as a result is very much insane, as detailed in his first appearance.
- A cat named Schrödinger appeared in the television series Stargate SG-1.
- A cat named Schrödinger also appeared in the television program Sliders. His owner, Quinn Mallory, studied Quantum Theory and invented a device to travel to other dimensions.
- A cat named Pixel in the classic Robert Heinlein novel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The cat is affectionately termed "Schrödinger's Cat" due to his ability to be wherever his favorite person (in the case of the book, the narrator) is. His ability to walk through walls is due to the fact that Pixel does not know that it is impossible.
- The web comic has an episode about Schrödinger's cat. "They're talking about schreddin' cats and puttin' 'em in a box!!!"
- Dan Simmons' novel Endymion begins with hero Raul Endymion trapped in a Schrödinger cat box.
- Steve Martin's 1998 book Pure Drivel includes a piece entitled "Schrödinger's Cat," which presents a summary of the theory, followed by several ficticious, nonsensical theories, including "Wittgenstein's Banana," "Apollo's Non-Apple Non-Strudel," and "Chef Boyardee's Bungee Cord" (which begins, "A bungee cord is hooked at one end to a neutrino, while the other end is hooked to a vibraphone...")
- In the 40th anniversary Doctor Who audio book “Zagreus” produced by Big Finish and released in 2003, the Doctor is locked in a lead lined box that contains cyanide in an effort to explain his situation of being neither dead nor alive. Afterwards, the Doctor does mention he met Schrödinger’s Cat.
- Erwin Schrödinger, The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics (Translation)
- Poem by Cecil Adams
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