Erwin Schrödinger, Cat Killer

red_cat_eye_picture_jpgSchrodinger was a sick puppy. If you really look at his experiment, it’s very disturbing. In fact, if you stop to look at it in detail, you’ll find a number of things that the common public gets wrong about it.

1. That cat’s gonna die.

There’s no getting around it, the cat is going to end up dead in this experiment. Thank goodness this is “theoretical” physics, because it’s kind of gruesome.

What Schrodinger envisioned was a cat locked into a box with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a sample of radioactive material, and a hammer. Sounds like a creepy Tom and Jerry cartoon, doesn’t it?

tomjerry_1The poison is there to kill the cat. The hammer is to smash the poison. The Geiger counter triggers the hammer. And the radioactivity is to freak everyone out and turn the cat into a zombie if the poison doesn’t work.

No, not really. Sorry.

The point of the radioactive material is that it’s unpredictable. At any point it could trigger the geiger counter, which sets in motion the events that will kill the cat. Or it could sit there undetected for a very long time. And if the hammer never smashes the poison, the cat isn’t necessarily dead.

Oh, eventually the cat’s going to either suffocate, be poisoned, or succumb to radiation poisoning. This is basically the physics version of a kitty snuff film. But the point is that at any given moment the scientists won’t know whether it’s still alive. And scientists hate uncertainty like that.

2. So how does this prove that the cat is both dead and alive? It doesn’t. That’s just nonsense.

You and I know that any living thing is either alive or dead, but can never be both. So why do we nod our heads when brilliant scientists say nonsense like this? It’s because they use fancy words like Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Superposition and we start to question the truths that we know.

schrodingers_catIn the famous “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, they stated that any given object can exist in a variety of states. It’s the observer who is important, because the act of observing the object pidgeonholes it into a single state of being.

I’m sure they got a number of medals for that theory, but I’m with Schrodinger in thinking it’s just a fancy way of saying, “Heck, we don’t know.”

The point of his cat experiment is to prove that this isn’t the case, at least not for anything larger than an atom. The cat, quite obviously, is either alive or dead. Saying that it is both at once is just the scientist being lazy – and not wanting to admit that he doesn’t know.

3. You never know what you’ll be famous for.

Shroedinger suggested this whole experiment to disprove the Copenhagen interpretation. I’m certain that he never thought people would take his conclusion seriously, and that eighty years later he’d be known for saying the silly phrase, “The cat is both dead and alive.”

There’s the danger of publishing satire.

The world should just be glad that it didn’t take Jonathan Swift this seriously for his “Modest Proposal.”

 

p.s. Despite the name of my blog, I am not suggesting that anyone hurl cats into forests. Thank you.

 

 

Defending Leia

princessleiaheadwithgunGrowing up in the women’s lib 70s, my female teachers constantly would ask us kids whether we thought there were any girls in TV or movies that were positive role models. I never had a good answer for that. It took me a long time to realize that’s because I never thought of Princess Leia as a girl.

Perhaps the question was phrased poorly.

Or maybe it was that we were all so obsessed with the other characters of that movie — how cool Han and Luke were, how high-tech the droids, what Vader looked like beyond the mask — to focus very much on normal-looking people in those movies.

It’s also easy to write Leia off as a typical damsel in distress, since Luke and Obi-Wan do start their grand quest by rescuing the princess. However, the moment she grabs a blaster and engineers their escape, that claim is negated.

If you stop to look at the depth of her character, though, you realize Leia may be the most complex character in any movie, not just an action series. At various times, Leia Organa is:

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  • A seasoned diplomat, the senator of her planet
  • An agent of espionage, withstanding torture
  • A mechanic
  • A starpilot
  • A beautiful princess, daughter of legendary Bail Organa
  • A biker chick (on Endor)
  • A mother figure (to the Ewoks)
  • A foot soldier in Han’s elite task force
  • A tender nursemaid
  • The only witness to the genocide of her home planet
  • A slave who murders her master
  • One of the leaders of the resistance
  • A shy girl falling in love

 


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I didn’t realize how much I cared about Leia until I got to college. We had a guest lecturer in our Media Criticism class. This is just before the original trilogy was re-released in the theaters and he was enjoying some minor fame for a paper he’d had published on the subject, so they invited him to come read the paper to us.

His theme was Sexual Discrimination in the Star Wars Universe.

I was on-guard from the beginning, I guess. But to start with a claim that women are not allowed any positions of power in Star Wars is to completely discount Mon Mothma, the leader of the Rebellion who then became President of the New Republic. If you’ve only seen the movies once or twice, you’re forgiven for not picking up on her character; however, before you give a lecture on the subject you ought to have researched the main players of that galaxy.

leia-princess-leia-organa-solo-skywalker-33523080-1024-768But the lecturer went on, claiming that women in these action movies were always of a lesser status. I was so irritated I was squirming in my seat. Then he started in on Leia.

Building to his climax, he claimed, “At one point, Leia even says to Luke, ‘You have a power I don’t understand and could never have.‘ ”

At this point, I shouted back, “Yes, but Luke’s very next line is, ‘You’re wrong, Leia. You have that power, too. And in time, you’ll learn to use it as I have.‘ ”

Picture, if you will, a hall full of bored college kids, half asleep toward the end of a lecture, suddenly jerking to life. Their faces kept pivoting between me and the lecturer like we’d started a tennis match. He and the professor, meanwhile, were open-mouthed and aghast.

All this happened in the time it took my brain to kick in and whisper to me: I am such a geek that I just shouted a random line of movie dialogue in the middle of a college lecture to defend the honor of a fictional character.

But after a heartbeat’s introspection, one other fact was also clear to me: I was right.

The lecturer knew it, too. I stared him down as he fumbled his way through the end of his speech and fled from the stage. The entire room filed out without anyone accidentally making eye contact with me.

Strong role model, indeed. They’re lucky I didn’t have a blaster.

The Christmas Millionaire

Twenty-six years ago today, a crazy thing happened. My dad won the lottery.

Yep, no kidding. The real deal. All six numbers. Jackpot.

cash-gift-1358485845I can still picture the scene: I was standing behind him, peeking over his shoulder as he compared the official numbers to his list. He got to the matching numbers before I did and gave a little, “Whoo-hoo!” Then he held the numbers closer together and had me read them aloud with him. Mom was clearing the dinner dishes until he started shouting her name and soon the entire family was in the living room. We were laughing more than anything. I can’t say we were really shocked or surprised. Dad had always had the feeling that he was going to win and we believed him, so when it finally happened, all we could say was, “Now how about that?”

I was a Senior in high school at the time, and had been on my way out to meet my friends at the pizza joint when it happened. I still went out, of course, but dad made us all promise that we wouldn’t tell anyone outside of the family. It was a crazy secret to keep. I sat there with my friends all night, listening to them tell stories, and was practically mute. I don’t think I ever explained to them why I didn’t tell them anything.

Dad had a darned good reason, though — we didn’t have the ticket.

You know how, every time the Powerball Jackpot gets high, someone that you work with will suggest pooling everyone’s money to buy a bunch of tickets? It’s a good idea. It works – I’ve seen it.

141031122136-lottery-tickets-1024x576Dad and all the other welders along his line at the plant had started doing it almost a year earlier. Whenever the lottery got above $10 million, they’d all throw in $5. With ten men on that line, that resulted in 50 tickets. One guy would buy them, then make photocopies for everyone else.

That’s what dad was checking the numbers against that night – a photocopy. Then he immediately called one of his friends from work who also had gone in on the pool. But the guy who had bought the tickets wasn’t home that night, so nobody knew exactly where the tickets were and whether they were secured.

Don’t worry, it all worked out. The guy was smart enough to have kept them locked up.

We originally planned to keep up the secrecy for a month, until all ten guys and their wives could go to the state capitol to redeem the ticket together. Word leaked, of course. Heck, by the time I got to school on Monday most of my little town had heard about it, though they weren’t all ready to believe it was true. (Little towns are great for crazy rumors.)

Because we weren’t talking about it publicly, though, most people never knew about the craziest twist of all.

I mentioned that these ten guys on the gantry had been pooling their money for months. However, on the week that they won, one of the guys was out sick. They wanted to do an even $50 of tickets, so they invited their foreman to chip in instead.

I’ve never been able to imagine what went through the mind of that guy when he showed up Monday morning and discovered that all of his co-workers had won the lottery … and he didn’t because of a flu bug!

I think I’d have gone catatonic.

Fortunately, the “Gantry Gang” (as they would later be called, after they all retired early) was made up of guys who cared more about what was right than about the money itself. They had a private conference over lunch that day and voted unanimously to include the 11th guy in the winnings.4185921781_bec1058c3f_o

I’ve always been proud of my dad. But I think my heart swelled two sizes that day.