The cat that did not exist is dead or alive or both

Schrodinger’s Cat by MC

Last year on July 17, I partly wrote a play that was my attempt to test my highbrow humor. That post was inspired by a piece in The Independent of London about ultra-highbrow humor. The piece was about humor among scientists often referred to as geek humor or nerd humor.

There were some blisteringly smart jokes that the piece’s writer Andrew Johnson compiled. Reading those one popped up instantly in my mind which went something like this:

A neighbor to Erwin Schrodinger: What do you feed your cat?

You have to be in the realm to get this “ultra-highbrow humor” because first you have to know who Schrodinger is and then the relevance of the feline reference and the whole thought experiment around an imaginary cat inside an imaginary box which is both dead and alive simultaneously in a mindfuck paradox.

So anyway, after I wrote that line, it occurred to me that there is potential here for a full play. The basic plot is that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Erwin Schrodinger is being tried for killing his cat. The ultra-highbrow humor part is that there was no cat and since there was no cat, it was not killed. The cat was imaginary and so was his death, if it did happen. It was one of science’s greatest thought experiments.

Caution: What I have written here is entirely, 100 percent fiction. There was no such court case and no such trial just as there was no such cat. (In any case we are not sure whether the cat that did not exist is dead or alive because that is the whole crux of the experiment.)

Any resemblance to the dead or the living or the living dead or the dead living or the in between is incidental and/or deliberate and/or deliberately incidental and/or incidentally deliberate.

I am republishing that post precisely a year later because nothing has changed on the feline front. It is still both dead and alive as well as in between as it has always been.

Part I

Time: 1935

Time: 9.30 a.m.

Venue: Bundesgerichtshof, the Federal Court of Justice, Berlin

Judge Volkard Strauss presiding. The judge is intently reading his notes.

Case # 24246, The Third Reich versus Erwin Schrodinger

Case history:

Erwin Schrodinger (ES) has been charged with culpable felinicide even though the police have not been able to determine whether the cat was dead or alive. What threw them off was the accused’s oblique suggestion that the cat could be both dead and alive. In his police statement, Schrodinger said the following:

“A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat mixed or smeared out in equal parts. It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a "blurred model" for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.”

Judge Strauss (JS) is questioning the first witness for the prosecution, Frau Frauke (FF), a next door neighbor of Schrodinger :

JS: Describe to me your encounter with Prof. Schrodinger on the morning of the police raid.

FF: We exchanged pleasantries but he seemed preoccupied. He always seemed preoccupied. I asked him about his cat.

JS: What about the cat?

FF: I was curious to know what he fed his cat because I never saw him feed it. I never saw the cat either.

JS: And what did he tell you?

FF: He said there was no cat to feed but if he had one he would choose hydrocyanic acid.

JS: (Taken aback): Hydrocyanic acid? Why?

FF: I couldn’t tell you that because he never told me why. He only said something about a radioactive substance and hammer smashing the flask inside a box.

JS: You seem familiar with scientific terms.

FF: I am a retired science teacher. I retired from teaching but not science.

JS (Smiling): Let me ask you a direct question. Do you think Prof. Schrodinger killed his cat?

FF: Well, I never saw the cat but that does not mean he did not kill it. It also does not mean that if he had one he killed it.

JS: Did you experience any foul smell emanating from his apartment?

FF:  I did and I confronted him about it.

JS:  What was his explanation?

FF:  He said it was the stench of a decaying genius.

JS:  And you believed him?

FF:  Not quite but there was a high probability that it was indeed the stench of a decaying genius.

JS: Then why did you alert the police?

FF: Who would not like to save a decaying genius?

By now Prof. Schrodinger, sitting along with his attorney, is laughing. The judge notices him and says:

JS: You find something amusing professor?

ES:  Only the notion that a decaying genius has a stench.

JS turns to FF and excuses her from the witness stand. He directs ES to come to the witness box.

JS: I do not wish to continue your testimony today much long because I want to recess the court early. But before I do that, let’s go through a few questions.

JS: So is the cat dead or alive?

ES: That depends.

JS: On what?

ES: On whether an atom decayed, the tube discharged, the hammer fell, the flask shattered and the hydrocyanic acid spilled. Only then could the cat die.

JS: So the cat did die.

ES: That depends.

JS: On what?

ES: On whether an atom decayed, the tube discharged, the hammer fell, the flask shattered and the hydrocyanic acid spilled. Only then could the cat die.

JS: (Exasperated): But you already said that once. Why are you saying it again?

ES: Because you asked me again. Asking the question again does not change my answer.

JS: You have said during your interrogation that the cat could be both dead and alive. How is that possible?

ES: That is not possible. I said probable.

JS: That’s a distinction without a difference.

ES: I would call them distinctly different.

JS: Let me ask in simple terms. Is the damn cat dead or alive?

ES: If all of the above conditions were met, then it is likely that it died. If not, it is likely it is alive. But we have no way of knowing unless we open the box. So for us, without opening the box the cat is both dead and alive at any given time.

JS: Where is the box and how big is it?

ES: There is no box.

JS: Be that as it may, what poison did you feed your cat?

ES: I did not feed my cat anything because it did not exist.

JS: Then why have you been charged with killing the cat?

ES: It is an imaginary cat inside an imaginary box equipped with an imaginary radioactive substance from which an imaginary atom may or may not decay and the tube may or may not discharge and the hammer may or may not fall and the acid may or may not be released. Hence, the cat, which does not exist, may or may not die. And unless we open the box that also does not exist we may or may not know whether the imaginary cat is dead or alive.

By now, the judge is ready to tear his hair out. He throws the gavel at Schrodinger who ducks. The gavel falls on the courtroom floor. The floor shatters like glass. A dark golden brown cat jumps out from underneath. He rubs his body against Schrodinger’s right shoe and jumps on to the judge’s dais. He thumps his paw and says:

“If you think I exist, I think you should see Dr. Freud who, by the way, is real.”

P.S.: Some day I hope to complete the play. (July 17, 2013)

P.P.S.: I have now completed the play. (July 17, 2014)

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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