Monday 26 December 2016

Schrödinger's Data Stick


Helen Combe

Caffè Corretto


 'Boil, damn you!'
Milo shook his fist at the kettle. He was gasping for a cup of coffee, especially now that he had the stress of a quantum entangled cat in a state of limbo, howling, snarling and rampaging around in the box on his kitchen table.
Milo liked to occupy himself by recreating experiments, and the simplicity of Schrödinger's had always appealed, combined with the complexity of getting his hands on a fragment of plutonium and a phial of cyanide. Knowing that the police were currently executing a countrywide hunt for him just added to the excitement. However the experiment itself was proving to be a lot less satisfying than the preparation.
'Boil you bastard!' He yelled at the kettle.
Schrödinger's experiment was actually theoretical, designed to illustrate the problem with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. The cat is supposed to be simultaneously alive and dead, as a result of a quantum subatomic event that may or may not occur. Specifically, an atom of the plutonium may decay, causing the phial to shatter and so kill the cat. Alternatively, the atom may not decay, the phial will not shatter and the cat will live. However until the box is opened and the contents are observed, the cat will be simultaneously alive and dead, a state referred to as quantum superposition. Once the box is opened, reality collapses into one possibility or the other and the cat is only then definitely alive and kicking or sadly deceased.
Aiming another snarl at the obstinately humming kettle, Milo picked up his data stick in order to record his observation that the state of feline quantum superposition is a surprisingly noisy one. He inserted the data stick into the USB port. It didn't fit. He turned it over and reinserted it. It still didn't fit. He turned it over yet again and it still refused to fit.
'Christ, I need a coffee!' he howled.
        'Yarroogghh! Gah! Spit!' complained the superannuated (or not) cat.
Milo reversed the data stick and looked at it. The USB connector had until then been in a state of quantum superposition, neither up nor down, but now that Milo had observed it, reality collapsed into one possibility and the connector assumed the position of 'Up'.
'Bloody data stick, you do it to me every time,' he wailed.
It did do it every time, because the proof of the entanglement theory was there in front of him several times every day, without the need to murder a cat (or not).
In fact, the world is full of everyday truths that are known, yet completely ignored, and every rule is proved by its exception. Milo knew the old saying that a watched pot never boils, but he didn't believe it. In fact, the pot was the exception to the rule of quantum entanglement. While it was observed, it remained in a state of neither boiled nor unboiled.
'Yowowowwll!' cried the undead moggy.
'Oh for God's sake!'
Milo ripped the box open and the cat shot out over his shoulder. The cat had in fact never been in a state of quantum entanglement. Observation does not have to be visual, it can also be auditory. The plutonium however, had been caught between states, but upon being observed, reality collapsed into one of two possibilities. The plutonium atom decayed, the phial of cyanide shattered and released its poisonous vapour. Milo observed, breathed, gasped and crumpled to the floor.
The kettle, the exception to the rule, finding itself no longer observed, was released from its state of quantum entanglement and quickly came to a roiling boil.

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