Saturday, October 31, 2009

Schrödinger's cat x Flash Forward

This week's episode of ABC's campy breathtaking drama, Flash Forward, featured a brief discussion of Schrödinger's Cat; one of the most complex and troubling paradoxes in quantum physics.  For the past hour or so, I've been reading about it and it is fascinating.

Schrödinger devised this particular "thought experiment" in 1935 to highlight the absurdity of quantum mechanics:
"We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat. The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed.
 Evan's note-- Pause for a second and think about what this means.
"Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive)."
The paradox exists in that the observation itself affects an outcome.  So that the outcome as such does not exist unless the observation is made. (That is, there is no single outcome unless it is observed.)  This is a very troubling concept and since I am not an expert in quantum mechanics, I admit that I do not understand the full implications of this theoretical experiment.  Schrödinger himself is rumored to have said, later in life, that he wished he had never met that cat.

Here's a short video that illustrates this concept:

[Link: WhatIs?]

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