In which we learn about quantum decoherence, as illustrated by the immortal story of Plague Doctor Schrödinger.
Plague doctor Erwin Schrödinger was on track to become a great physicist early in the Twentieth Century. He might have gone on to become known as one of the fathers of quantum mechanics.
Everything changed with the arrival of that DARN CAT!
Straining against all credibility, the world changed in 1933. On the remote Saskatchewan frontier, just outside the village of Nipawin, homesteaders reported seeing strange lights in the sky.
Those ‘strange lights’ belonged to the alien Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7‘s spacecraft. Jakob, as he would be called later, had set down at a secret refueling station in the Canadian wilds. The booming fur trade and new northern railroads allowed many a trapper to settle year-round in the previously uninhabited wilderness.
Jakob crash-landed his ship a few minutes later in New Jersey.
Strange lights in the sky, rough and ready trappers, fine Canadian whiskey, and a lack of women. The details are unknown, but somehow, someone got a ‘lucky’ shot while the ship’s shield was down.
Flash Forward to 1934
- Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac are at it again, this time working at Princeton University for Major General MacArthur’s top secret Energy Research Laboratory (E.R.L.). A small group of top scientists at E.R.L. furiously push the boundaries of science and human understanding – but always with an eye on the trouble in Europe. Funded by MacArthur’s war department budget, E.R.L. luminaries constantly compete with their counterparts in the better known Institute for Advanced Studies (I.A.S.), also at Princeton, led by Einstein himself.
- Jakob has shared technology with the dynamic duo, but MacArthur continues to insist the alien poses an existential threat to the United States. He hopes to take just enough advantage of the alien’s superior knowledge to defeat him.
Smash Cut to 1935
- May 15, 1935: Einstein, Podalsky, and Rosen of I.A.S. challenge the completeness of Quantum Mechanics.
quantum mechanics is weird
Here’s the basic problem raised by the I.A.S. team:
Consider quantum superposition:
The math (which earned Schrödinger his first Nobel Prize) allows quantum states to ‘stack’. Imagine a binary system with only two possible states (True/False, 1/0, ⊤/⊥, etc.). In the classical world, binary states like this are mutually exclusive. Something that is True cannot also be False. In the quantum world however, objects can be in both states at the same time!
The prevailing interpretation took all of this to mean that a quantum system exists in superposition of every possible next state. It will continue in this superposition until observed.
The observation itself forces the superpositioned states to collapse into just one, which is what gets observed:
The EPR paper wasn’t a shot across E.R.L.’s bow (courtesy of I.S.A.) – it was a public declaration of war.
NOT. SO. FAST… said Einstein. Giving the example of a barrel full of unstable gunpowder (binary states: exploded or not). “In reality,” he continues, “there is no intermediary between exploded and not-exploded.”
- Building on technology shared by Jakob, Schrödinger (who actually agreed with the EPR paper) set out to take Einstein’s objection out of the thought lab, and into the real world.
The “cesium artichoke” is a device that emits radiation. Every once in a random while, it emits a special radiant particle that is instantly fatal to aliens of Jakob’s species.
Jakob’s ship, though no longer spaceworthy, has shielding strong enough to causally isolate isolate its interior from the rest of the universe.
MacArthur insisted that Schrödinger kill two cats with one stone, and use Jakob as the experimental subject.
This experiment would soon be called the Transcredible Experiment. Would it carry our heroes ever higher, transcending credibility? The one photograph that survived the cesium artichoke radiation (apparently the hermetically sealed ship concentrated the effect, destroying most of the film) answered the question for all time:
Something strange was happening. The experiment was supposed to be a paradox, demonstrating the inanity of the Copenhagen Interpretation. And yet, the results clearly show actual, real superposition.
Something (strange) else was happening too. The different Jakobs were, well… different. No actual cat, alive or dead, is a stick figure…