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Schrödinger’s Uncertain Cat

Updated on April 3, 2016
Erwin Schrodinger
Erwin Schrodinger

Hypothetical cat

William Blake said: “What is now proved was once only imagined.” Take Schrödinger’s Cat for instance.

It’s a nice cat. It lives in a box. Also sharing its box is a Geiger counter and a small amount of radioactive material. If the radioactive material decays by even as little as one atom, then a sprung hammer will be released, smashing into a vial of prussic acid, therefore killing the cat.

It’s okay. It’s not a real cat. It’s a hypothetical cat. Mr Schrödinger imagined it. He probably never had a real cat, and if he did, I’m sure he fed it on Whiskas and stroked it every day. As they say in the movies, “No animals were hurt in the making of this production.”

The thing is, you can’t know if the cat is alive or dead until you open the box, because you can’t know if the atom has decayed or not. Mr Schrödinger merely posited the cat as a way of highlighting the weird contradictions inherent in the world of Quantum Mechanics; that is, on the small scale of atoms and subatomic particles.

Is the cat alive or dead? Only the cat knows. And if you look, who is to say that your looking didn’t contribute to the result? Perhaps the cat is alive and dead at the same time.

Such are some of the theories being bandied about by Physicists, not so much about cats as about subatomic particles, which can apparently exist in two places at the same time, among a host of other strange qualities.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

Is light made up of waves or particles? Actually it is both. It depends how you view it. With some devices it appears as waves, with others as particles. So it can be either a wave or a particles, or it can be both, or it can be neither, and nobody is really sure. In other words, the one constant in our universe, light – which always travels at the same speed, no matter where you go – is also paradoxical, meaning that it appears to be two contradictory things at the same time.

The same may be true of subatomic particles. If you fire a subatomic particle at a metal plate with two slits in it, the particle will pass through both slits at the same time.

It’s as if I threw a tennis ball at a wall with two windows and it broke both windows at precisely the same moment. It didn’t bounce. It must have turned into two balls, or spread itself out like a wave so that it could pass through both windows at the same time. But when it appears on the other side of the wall, it’s just one ball again.

This, of course, is a paradox. If you look at it in one way it appears as a particle. If you look at it another way, it appears as a wave. The very act of observing alters what is observed. The observer affects the observed. By looking at something we change it. This is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and should be a lesson to anyone who ever believes they know the answer to anything.

Nothing is certain. A belief is just another way of viewing the world. By looking at the world through one particular belief system, you are affecting the world in some way. You are helping to confirm your belief, regardless of whether your belief is true or not.

Erwin Schrödinger won the Nobel prize for physics in 1933 for something we now know as Schrödinger’s Equation. It has nothing to do with cats. In later life he said he wished he’d never met that damned cat.


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    • CJStone profile image

      CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Thanks for your applause cwarden. Much appreciated.

    • cwarden profile image

      cwarden 7 years ago from USA

      When I saw your title I just had to stop by, I am always thrilled to find articles like this. Such a difficult yet fascinating topic to take on. Applause.

    • profile image

      Paul_Steads 7 years ago

      This was very interesting, entertaining and well written. Thank you CJStone

    • cameciob profile image

      cameciob 7 years ago

      CJStone, after reading your article I wished I were a physicist. There are certain things in physic that can be demonstated and always happens the same with no variables. But some others just escape our understanding. Amazing. Great hub, I'm glad I stopped and read it.

    • CJStone profile image

      CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      I did my best amorea. Hopefully it made some kind of sense.

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      amorea13 7 years ago

      CJ I liked that hub - you explained something so ridiculously incomprehensible in a very 'sane' and clear manner - thanks! I'll never look at a light-bulb in the same way again (or a cat!).

      Yes I agree, nothing is as it seems - ever - and in the final analysis it comes down to what we believe about what we view or experience - and so, we actually therefore, in a sense, create our own 'universe' around us whilst everyone (thing) else is doing the same!

      Sorry CJ I'll have to stop - my head is doing more than just spin! It's behaving like a wave/particle!

      Thanks again for a captivating hub.

    • CJStone profile image

      CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Thanks Paraglider. You might have noticed that I was almost as uncertain about the material as Schrödinger's Cat was about his condition. Will check out the screensaver.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      A nice trip through some of the paradoxes of quantum physics and wave-particle duality.

      In a spare moment, you should download the Schrodinger's Cat screensaver from PPARC - easily googled. It's entertaining, especially with the sound turned on.

    • CJStone profile image

      CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK

      Thanks for the prompt commentary CennyWenny. Are you actually travelling at the speed of light?

    • CennyWenny profile image

      CennyWenny 7 years ago from Washington

      Thanks for the great insight! I had heard of Schrodinger's Cat before but never knew much more. I guess the one thing we know for sure is that we know so very little.