Letting the Cat out of the Box

Personally, I love secrets. It’s exciting to know something to which very few people are privy; yet it’s still so satisfying when I finally get the go-ahead to share the juicy news. A friend of mine swore me to secrecy about her pregnancy for EIGHT WEEKS, which was quite an exercise in mental constipation; finally getting the green light was a huge relief. 

As a quantum chemist, I deal in secrets every day, although not nearly the same kind of secrets famous quantum scientists like Fermi, Feynman, and Oppenheimer shielded (i.e., the Manhattan Project). And while the Department of Defense will be happy to know that I have no desire to research anything regarding nuclear warfare, my work is still secretive and elusive….because quantum behavior is one of science’s best-kept secrets.

Quantum science is approximately a hundred twenty years old, a baby in the realm of scientific discovery. And like most “youngest children,” it was not well-received at first, considering it claimed it had found flaws in Newtonian mechanics, the thoroughly-vetted and widely-accepted laws describing motion. Sir Isaac Newton was (and still is) revered as one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians this world has ever known. Challenging him was like putting a lightweight in the ring with Muhammad Ali. Except this time, the lightweight turned out to be Joe Frazier.

Credit: James Clear

Credit: James Clear

While Newton’s laws of motion still beautifully describe the behavior of large objects, like people, cars, and planets, it neglects to account for the behavior of subatomic particles, such as protons, neutrons, and, my personal favorite, electrons.

The inner workings of an atom are so complex and intricate that it is normally too difficult to describe EVERYTHING about it within a high degree of accuracy. While Newtonian mechanics can give us precise and accurate numbers for its own objects, quantum mechanics usually only gives us probabilities.

Take Schrodinger’s cat. I honestly don’t know how someone can come up with an example involving a cat, a box, a vial of cyanide, a Geiger counter with a radioactive substance, and a hammer to describe measuring different outcomes. (Why couldn’t he have just used a coin flip as an example?) The setup is this: a cat is placed inside a box (most likely happily consenting considering how much they love boxes) along with a vial of cyanide, a hammer, and a Geiger counter (a device that measures radioactivity) containing a radioactive material. This material has a 50-50 chance of either decaying or remaining intact. If, after an hour, it decays, triggering the Geiger counter, the hammer will be signaled to smash the vial of poison, thereby killing the cat. If it remains intact after one hour, the cat lives (and is probably pissed off at you for leaving it in a closed box for such a long time). 

As a cat mom, I am not very fond of this somewhat creepy and unnecessarily detailed thought experiment. However, it was used to highlight a point: we can never know exactly what state a quantum particle is in until we actually take a measurement (i.e., look into the box). Only when the system (the box) is affected by its environment (you opening the box) does the system “collapse” into one possibility (the cat is EITHER dead OR alive); before that interaction takes place, the system is a combination of all possibilities (the cat is BOTH dead AND alive).

This sounds insane. Mainly because it is. This type of behavior (called superposition) runs counter to everything we observe in our daily lives. If I go to the doctor and have my height measured, I will be 5’9” before, during, and after the measurement; I won’t be in an equally distributed set of all possible heights until the nurse looks at the stadiometer. 

But this is how subatomic particles behave: they can exist in a myriad of possible states until something is measured. And even then, there are complications because these particles can affect each other’s outcomes, not just their own (due to entanglement). Also, it’s impossible to know the exact location AND velocity of a quantum particle at the same time within a high level of accuracy (thanks to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle). Think of it as the morning-after hangover of science: when you wake up, you might know where you are; but you have no clue how you got there or where you’re going.

The atoms that make up our world have secrets to keep. Perhaps, somehow, nature inherently knows it can be harnessed for both good and evil; as evidenced with the atomic bomb, the world had a first-hand account of how utilizing some of the smallest particles in the universe could unleash never-before-seen catastrophes. Or maybe occasionally we need to be reminded of our own shortcomings by observing the intricacies of some of the smallest yet most powerful objects that govern our universe.

-Kristina


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