As I got ready to go home one recent afternoon, I called my wife. She said that she had a package of ground beef and that it was my choice for supper: hamburgers or spaghetti.
“Nothing beats a hamburger,” I said.
“But,” she interjected, “we don’t have buns, just plain loaf bread.”
“Hmmm, then spaghetti is always good,” I said. “They both sound great.”
“So, which one?”
“Surprise me,” I finally said. Whatever she cooks is good, so I was in safe hands.
For the next 20 minutes, as the miles rolled by, I thought about hamburgers and spaghetti and Schrödinger’s cat.
You probably recall Schrödinger’s cat from school, although you never saw the cat itself because it was just part of a thought experiment.
In the 1930s, the big thing to study was quantum mechanics, which dealt with probabilities affecting subatomic particles.
The prevailing belief was the Copenhagen interpretation, pushed by famed Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who was no stranger to the people who built Savannah River Site. Bohrs’ theory said that until subatomic activity is actually observed or measured, it could yield opposing movements at once.
In 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger questioned that and skinned a figurative cat to prove his point.
What if you put a cat into a sealed steel box, Schrödinger theorized, along with a bit of a radioactive substance whose atoms might start decaying at any time; a Geiger counter to measure any radiation; and a vial of nasty acid or poison that could be spilled by the radiation?
Until you opened the box, you wouldn’t know whether the cat was dead or alive. If atoms start decaying, the acid would kill the cat. Otherwise, the cat remains healthy.
Bohrs’ theory said the cat is both alive and dead, because either possibility is equally true until you open the box. The cat is thus a ghost of sorts until observation nails down its fate.
(If you want to discuss quantum mechanics beyond that cat, you’ll have to buy me a hamburger. Or spaghetti. Or both.)
Anyway, that is what occupied my mind as I drove home. Until I walked into the kitchen, I had equal chances of dining on hamburger and spaghetti that night. The proof was in the pudding, as they say.
If I had taken Schrödinger home for supper, of course, he would have pointed out that the meal was already being cooked and the decision made; it was only my lack of observation that seemed to give me a 50-50 chance at the dishes.
Both Schrödinger and Bohrs had won the Nobel Prize in physics for their atomic studies before the cat trick.
Both men are respected today. And maybe 1 percent of the population knows what they were even talking about. (I am not a 1 percenter.)
By the way, we had spaghetti that night. It was good.