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.
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