The Pandora/Schrodinger Paradigm

Once upon a time, there was this cat. And it was definitely there.

Or was it?

That all depends, it seems, on the murky world of quantum physics, where quantum entanglement has us all in knots trying to comprehend.

The world is built of tiny little building blocks. Electrons, protons, molecules of sundry descriptions.

And sometimes they interact, and they have the same state, like at a really good party. The pairs have the same position; the same spin; the same momentum. Synchronicity of the most sublime kind.

And then again, they don’t: they separate, and it’s all a bit isolated.

How do you tell which is which?

According to quantum mechanics, the state they share is indefinite – until someone measures it.

Man the measurer has put himself back at the centre of existence once again. Maybe the earth is not flat, and the sun and the planets do not revolve around it, but that’s ok: because the very act of measuring conquers the universe and its microcosm for us once more.

It was Einstein who got really interested in the whole are they, aren’t they quantum soap opera, and he passed the baton to Erwin Schrödinger and his eminently possible cat, some time in 1935.

So Erwin puts the cat in the box. And there’s a flask of poison in there too, and the two coexist happily because never, in the history of cat and human, has a cat ever picked up a bottle and taken a swig. Lack of opposable thumbs is a clear strength in this thought experiment.

Herr Schrödinger steers clear of the whole what-if-the-cat-had-opposable-thumbs-and-could-swig-from-a-bottle thing. No, he opts to put something else in the box: a complementary pair. A measuring instrument and its trigger.

A Geiger counter is next to a tiny amount of radioactive substance. It’s possible that one single atom will decay during the hour the cat is inside the box – thus triggering the poison and rendering our little furry thought experiment an ex-furry thought experiment.

But it’s equally possible no atom will decay during the hour. And until the hour is up, we simply will not know.

And so inside, says Schrodinger, according to the theories of quantum physics, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.

The thing that makes it all possible is the box. It’s a superbox. It stops anything outside interfering, a steel protector of the state inside, whatever it is.

It’s not the first time a box has made it into the world of popular myth. Once, 750 or more years before Christ, Greek poet Hesiod came up with another which was a gift from the Greek Gods.

The story of this box comes from an unlikely source: Hesiod wrote a farmer’s year book called ‘Works and Days’ for his brother. In it he offers practical advice alongside two long ‘reasonings’ – sections which explain why humans must toil and experience pain.

It is these which elevate his work to achieve immortality. For it is here we find the tale of Prometheus; and here that we read the story of Pandora’s Box.

It was a craftsman-god who created woman; he used earth and water, and gave her intricate beauty, accomplished musicianship, consuming curiosity and a subtle but powerful gift of persuasion.

When she was presented to her spouse Epimetheus, she came with a dowry of a kind: a box which she must never, under any circumstances, open. Inside were possibilities, simultaneous paradoxes, synchronicity and separation: but none had yet been observed.

And Zeus had ordered that no-one should ever take that quantum step: no-one should observe what was inside. It should remain unopened, a barrier against outside interference, simultaneously good and evil, trapped in stasis for eternity.

But there was a complementary pair, a potential for instability: a woman and her curiosity.

What chance did this superbox have?

Even today, the need to know is often overpowering. But unlike Schrödinger’s experiment, the outcome of this was anything but random: Pandora had a choice. Open the box and end the indefinite possibilities: or spend an eternity in a quandary of uncertainty, forever wondering whether the world was good, or evil, or simultaneously good and evil.

We know the ending: the curiosity proves too much. And when she opens the box the evils of the world rush out to meet it.

But in the box, at the same time as the worst, lurks the best: Hope. A way through the darkness; a reason to go on.

Two superboxes, two tales, thoughts thousands of years apart.

And central to both: an observer who changes the future irrevocably. Just by opening the fabled box, events enter the concrete world.

And which of us has not known just such a box: not a Schrödinger -steel structure, but a point of no return, with far-reaching consequences, a Rubicon which, once crossed, can never be revisited.

When we stand there, in a quantum quandary over whether to open the lid, we are at a crossroads. No-one knows what lies inside. Realities nestle simultaneously inside, waiting to be observed and unfold.

Schrödinger provides a 50/50 chance of life: Pandora’s box contains Hope.

Where there’s life, there’s paradox and possibility.

Image source here


36 thoughts on “The Pandora/Schrodinger Paradigm

  1. Variable 3: I could sell the blinking box. Then not only would I not know what it held, but whether it was ever opened. Or what it contained if never opened. At least I would have the consolation of having a few coins to buy the raw material to construct more boxes to sell. Now the possibilities grow exponentially. I would have disrupted the entire universe and that’s what happens because they let me out of the box. Or was that a lamp?

    1. Ha! Carl, it is very early in the morning here and I laughed out loud. Oh, the possibilities, not to mention the probabilities…
      (I had no idea they said ‘blinking’ in your part of the world!

  2. Fascinting stuff. If I had a cat I would definitely call it Schrodinger. Unfortunately my husband is allergic to dander so it would have to be one of those hairless cats. Not so mad keen on that.

  3. Brilliant! The best explanation of Schrodinger’s cat I’ve ever read. I prefer to think the cat is alive. But did anyone think to put food and water in the box? If not, he’s probably dead. And if they put him in there in 1935, it’s almost certain.

  4. Kate, if you or your Hubs have not yet read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, I cannot urge you more to do so. It is an engrossing read, and relates some of the science in such a way that you might begin to believe that you could actually understand and explain the theory of relativity, as well as other brilliant thoughts that seemed to spring out of his mind.

    It takes you into his life; he becomes this marvelous and complete human being with beauty, faults and foibles, yet wonderfully accessible and real; not some wild-haired crazy mysterious scientist.

    The Schrodinger’s cat story is also covered in the book, and how he and AE tossed ideas back and forth with one another. It is as well explained in the book as you have in this post.

    If you have read it, let me know; if not – please do, and let me know what you think of it! (It is available in paperback and Kindle, etc.)

  5. Wonderful post, Kate. I’ve wondered from time to time if I, like Pandora, would have opened the box. Ach! To let out all those troubles, what a burden for such curiosity, but, do always have hope . . . I think that is what most religious beliefs give.

    1. It’s true, Penny. Here, where we stood alone for a little while during the second world war, I wonder at how hope stayed alive in such hostile conditions. But it’s a persistent little critter.

      1. I have long admired the determination, strength, and hope of the British people, especially during the war years. I fear these days that many have lost hope, Kate. I worry about it. Once hope is lost, then what have we? Our garden walk proceeds go in large part to scholarship. The scholars are college juniors or senior and graduate students in horticulture, science, or medical studies. As part of the scholarship, which is rather a nice sum for a small group of gardeners, they are to come and speak to us. Each time they do, I smile inside and out and they renew my hope in the future.

        Wow! What a good post and all the thoughts your writing brings out. Well done!

      2. Yes: hope is always there: we just don’t recognise it when we don’t need it so much, I think. Wonderful to hear how your scholars renew your hope, Penny.

      3. Hope is a paradoxical thing, in the same way as courage. Fear is what gives birth to courage, and likewise despair is what creates hope. As my husband once wrote many years age, “Hope lies cradled in despair.” I learned long ago that Grace grows best in winter. Adversity and challenge are what move us ahead. That is why Christianity and other faiths grow the strongest when they are banned. When the Chinese Christians had to go deeply underground during the Maoist years, their numbers grew almost exponentially. When they were allowed again to worship in public – the number of people who called themselves Christian had multiplied itself over and over and over.

        My Pappy attended a worship service at the church he had served there in the 1940’s, when he returned to visit shortly after Americans were allowed in the late 70’s. The church was a very large building that had been well taken care of throughout the revolution. The church was allowed to hold their sevices there on Sundays from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Each service – 1 each hour from 6 a.m.-12 p.m. was full to overflowing, with people spilling out into the streets. No one wanted to leave after the service – congregants had to be asked to leave so the people waiting to attend one of the hourly services could get in the building.

        Hope/despair; joy/grief; courage/fear. Each duality is a coin, each side stamped at the same time, by the stamp of need. One cannot exist without the other.

        (Thus endeth the sermon. . .sorry, I got carried away by the thoughtful ideas and subject!)

      4. Paula, that is one of the most profound things I have heard in a long time. I goes some way to explaining the presence of suffering in a world with a God. Tremendous, thank you.

  6. Just this week I read a Sherlock Holmes tale (not Conan Doyle obviously) that used Schrodinger’s cat in the figuring AND my daughter is going to play Pandora in her acting camp skit. What was the potential, I wonder, for my encountering a blog post dealing with both of those topics at once?

  7. I don’t know that I would be able to resist opening the box. I do have a bottle of Meerlust Rubicon that everyone covets … so far I have managed to resist opening it. One fine day I will …

    1. Can’t wait to write your paradox piece: is anything ever random, I wonder?
      Wonderful link: that’s trust, isn’t it? Not suitable for a Schrodinger cat, though- you’d never get the dog in as well 😀

  8. And this, I think, provides an alternative framework for the Adam & Eve at the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil story – not a morality tale but a “this is the way it is, folks” narrative.

    1. It works either way, doesn’t it? A crossroads, a choice, a need to know – all the elements are there, just as they were when someone first spoke the creation story thousands of years ago.

  9. Very much enjoyed this post, Kate. I do believe this would be a wonderful piece to fashion into a poem… paradox, life or death, or even…hope. You are quite the clever one, indeed ~

  10. Quantum mechanics and the Uncertaintly Principle – endlessly fascinating, Kate

    “And sometimes they interact, and they have the same state, like at a really good party.” – hilarious line 🙂

  11. i always see Schrodiger’s cat as a dignified red tabby male. of course they got it all wrong. the cat definitely suffocates. poor kitty.

      1. Just looked at the cartoons and now I’m thinking it was just a hypothetical cat; is that right? I always thought it was a real one.

        Blame my CW teacher: he used the SC story in a lesson and he may or may not have told it right or I may or may not have listened properly. Is that why you didn’t answer my question? You thought I was joking/stupid?

        Whatever else you do, Kate, you get your readers interested. 🙂

      2. Do you ever have that thing where there is so much going on in your head that if you don’t do something straight away you forget about it irrevocably? I had framed an answer in my head to your dead cat prediction but some e mail must have come in or phone call come or child demand a drink or a walk or time on the wii or the dogs (we have a guest dog right now) set off barking at the postman….
        So the answer never got online. It was something along the lines of, dead right, sister, how can any cat put up with those conditions for long without checking out and hailing a rolls to get to kitty heaven a.s.a.p.?
        The only reason I know this stuff is because I’ve just researched it, and I’ll forget the lot by tomorrow morning 😀

    1. Good to hear it, obi3380. I loved Burty the Sunflower. And looking at your Flickr stream brings back a flood of memories: I lived and worked in Kent for a long while, and loved it to bits. Your Rochester Cathedral in particular is a new perspective: I always see it as dark and lowering, but there’s an ethereal quality about your photo. Beautiful.

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