just random stuff

Time and cats

I think I’m losing it. No, seriously, I think I am.

The other night, I dreamt a very strange dream in which I had to deliver an open packet of Frankfurter sausages to someone in order to have a barbecue (quite stressful, as I had to be careful when carrying them so I wouldn’t drop them), and then I actually forgot them on the counter of some bar. I only noticed this when I reached my destination, and got very stressed. Even weirder was the amount of people from work appearing on that dream!

Also, when I woke up after an “I’m tired, five more minutes, please” moment, and realised that it had been longer than that and I suddenly had only 30 minutes to get ready and leave the house. Well, it was stressful, although I can say I did get ready in 30 minutes.

I know, you’re wondering what this has to do with me losing it. Well… While I was rushing to get ready I wanted to check the time at some point, but I didn’t. Here’s my train of thought:

OK, let’s see what time it is… Actually, no! As long as I don’t look at it, it’ll be fine, I might be late, but I might not, I can still have time, but the moment I look at the time, that’s it, I’ll be late. Ha! The cat is both dead and alive… Wow, I can’t believe I’m just applying Schrödinger’s Cat theory to my life this early in the morning…

(By the way, let me just point out I should have looked at the time: it turned out I had read the clock wrong, and I wasn’t late at all, it hadn’t been 7.57am but 6.57am, so I ended up being early…)

I have very geeky friends, or if not, at least friends that watch The Big Bang Theory, so they probably know who is this Schrödinger I’m talking about. For those (normal people with lives and all that) that don’t know, here’s a very simple explanation of the theory… Bear with me, as I kind of understand all the background, but it’s very likely I have some details wrong, but hey, do correct me if that’s the case!

It has to do with quantum physics and stuff like that. It seems there is some theory that claims that the moment we measure or observe particles we are actually changing them. So they can exist in different conditions, or states at the same time, but it’s the act of looking at them what fixes them in only one situation. Or something.

It kind of explains why some particles would behave in different ways at different times, which seems to happen a lot in quantum physics…

So to demonstrate the absurdity of this theory (I’m not saying it is absurd myself, I only just about understand the paragraphs above!), Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment (it seems no kitties were actually harmed in the process of this example!) I think what he suggested was that this would not make sense for day-to-day objects and, well, real life.

He compared the theory above with placing a cat inside a sealed box. In that box, he said, there could also be a small amount of radioactive particles, which may or may not decay in, say, an hour. If one single particle decays, then a sensor would detect the radioactivity and activate a hammer. OK, this gets interesting… That said hammer, would then hit a flask with poison, which would then kill the cat.

So, there’s a box. One hour has passed and maybe the device has been activated and the cat is dead, or maybe it hasn’t been activated, and the cat is alive. Truth is, we don’t know.

If we believe the Copenhagen Interpretation, then the cat is both dead and alive – it’s actually thought to be both dead and alive.

An observer would have to open the box and look at the cat. It would only be the act of looking at it, of measuring its state what would determine whether the cat is dead or alive.

So, box is closed and we can’t see inside, the cat exists in both states: death and alive; someone opens the box to look inside, bam! the cat dies. Or maybe not. It depends on whether radioactivity was indeed released.

Of course it all gets quite tangled and you need an open and clever mind to understand all that stuff, but I think, in any case, we can all agree  that there is a box, so there’s definitely a cat inside! Seriously, what’s with cats and boxes?

There are many theories explaining, contradicting and adding to this theory, some of them such as there being many worlds in each of which the cat goes on existing either dead or alive, and stuff like that.

They also go on about explaining that there are different observers, for example: the cat is an observer of the device, but as the experiment goes, for the cat only one reality is true… Or something like that! It’s still the act of opening the box to have a look at what happened what seals the fate of the animal.

So as they say in the New Scientist’s video above, I guess curiosity might have actually killed the cat after all.


  1. Fundamentally, it’s the fact that simply by observing something, one influences the quantum state (characteristics) of a particle or microscopic object. Things behave weirdly at this tiny level, in which light is both a wave and particle at the same time. I post about physics and have a brief explanation on my blog 🙂

    • marz says

      Thanks for the comment! I’ll make sure I’ll have a look at your blog to learn more about physics!

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