Happy Birthday Erwin

Posting pictures of Erwin is difficult: you either know where they are or where they're going, but not both.

August 12th, 1878 marked the birth of the man who invented the future: Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger. While he’s not quite a household name, in his position as the father of quantum physics he contributed to the original ideas that shape the way we approach the 21st century. He was also credited by Watson and Crick as the man who pointed the way to DNA and the storage of genetic information in molecules.

He was a very complicated guy, and extremely unconventional for his time. While of Austrian birth, he firmly rejected Nazism (despite having to dodge around it a few times), and to put it plainly, chased anything in a skirt, living with two women at the same time and fathering a passel of little quantum kiddies. Talk about your Verschränkung!

But what Erwin is best remembered for is his cat, who not only had seven lives, but could be both alive and dead, at the same time. It goes like this: there was a paper out by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen that described quantum superposition, and another very strange cat named Bohr wrote an interpretation of it. Without getting too sciencey, it said that the math shows that if subatomic particles have a number of different ways they can be organised they will exist in all of those positions, at the same time. Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation implies that it’s only at the exact moment of being measured that the particle ‘collapses’ into a single state.

This irritated Erwin, so he did a reductio ad absurdum gedankenexperiment. Okay, sorry, enough train-wreck words: he pushed the idea as far as it would go to show how silly it was. He proposed locking a cat in a perfectly sealed box with a lethal device governed by a quantum process, like the decay of a particle. When the particle goes, the device goes off and the poor theoretical cat crosses the rainbow bridge.


Here’s the weirdness: the math says that over the course of an hour there is a 50/50 chance that the particle will have decayed, snuffing poor kitty. The Copenhagen interpretation says that inside the box the cat is both alive and dead, at the same time. It’s not until we open the box and look in that the collapse is chosen and the cat at that specific moment will have always been dead or alive. Up until that point the cat existed as a blur of quantum possibilities, like a blurred photograph.

If that doesn’t freak you out, nothing will. Well, maybe the other offshoot, quantum entanglement, but that’s a story for another day.

In any case, happy birthday Erwin, and thanks for making the future far less certain than ever thought possible.

Posted by QuanTim AT 12:25PM 0 Comments Comments Post A Comment Post A Comment Email Email

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