Schrodinger’s Menagerie

In the bizarre world of quantum physics, “Schrodinger’s cat” is the stuff of legend.

In the 1930s, as concepts of quantum mechanics were being developed and articulated, physicist Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment to illustrate issues related to the quantum concept of superpositioning, in which quantum particles maintain multiple states at the same time and only collapse to a final state upon interaction with other particles. In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, a cat is placed in a sealed box with a small radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, and some poison sufficient to kill the cat. If the radioactive substance decays, it triggers the Geiger counter that releases the poison and kills the cat. The decay of the radioactive substance is governed by quantum mechanics, which means the atoms are simultaneously in the states of “going to decay” and “not going to decay” — and which means that, as a matter of quantum physics, after a while the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead. Add in the concept of an observer opening the box to determine the cat’s status, and the notion of whether the actions of the observer can affect the cat’s status, and you’ve got a classic quantum mechanics mindbender.

Trying to get your head wrapped around quantum mechanics in the morning is tough sledding, but the key point here is that people found the concept of Schrodinger’s cat being both alive and dead at the same time extremely intriguing. His thought experiment not only took the world of physics by storm, it ultimately expanded outside the world of the white lab coats into the world at large — where the idea that something can be two things at the same time has been found to be a very useful concept.

Now we’ve got “Schrodinger’s smiley” — :): — to be used by someone who is both happy and sad at the same time. And there’s “Schrodinger’s douchebag,” defined as a guy who says offensive things and then decides whether he was joking based on the reaction of people around him. And why stop there? “Schrodinger’s politician” would be a politician who varies his position on the issues depending on the inclination of the group the politician happens to be speaking to at the time. “Schrodinger’s dog” would be that dog that comes charging up at you ready to either bite your hand or wag its tail. And “Schrodinger’s referee” would be the football official who decides whether to throw a flag based on crowd reaction and the acting job of the player seeking a penalty.

The possibilities are virtually endless, and the limits of Schrodinger’s menagerie are defined only by the limits of the human imagination and human experience. And to think that it all started with a simple living and dead cat in a sealed box.

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