(Roughly) Daily

“in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious”*…

 

Of all the bizarre facets of quantum theory, few seem stranger than those captured by Erwin Schrödinger’s famous fable about the cat that is neither alive nor dead. It describes a cat locked inside a windowless box, along with some radioactive material. If the radioactive material happens to decay, then a device releases a hammer, which smashes a vial of poison, which kills the cat. If no radioactivity is detected, the cat lives. Schrödinger dreamt up this gruesome scenario to mock what he considered a ludicrous feature of quantum theory. According to proponents of the theory, before anyone opened the box to check on the cat, the cat was neither alive nor dead; it existed in a strange, quintessentially quantum state of alive-and-dead.

Today, in our LOLcats-saturated world, Schrödinger’s strange little tale is often played for laughs, with a tone more zany than somber. It has also become the standard bearer for a host of quandaries in philosophy and physics. In Schrödinger’s own time, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg proclaimed that hybrid states like the one the cat was supposed to be in were a fundamental feature of nature. Others, like Einstein, insisted that nature must choose: alive or dead, but not both.

Although Schrödinger’s cat flourishes as a meme to this day, discussions tend to overlook one key dimension of the fable: the environment in which Schrödinger conceived it in the first place. It’s no coincidence that, in the face of a looming World War, genocide, and the dismantling of German intellectual life, Schrödinger’s thoughts turned to poison, death, and destruction. Schrödinger’s cat, then, should remind us of more than the beguiling strangeness of quantum mechanics. It also reminds us that scientists are, like the rest of us, humans who feel—and fear…

More of this sad story at “How Einstein and Schrödinger Conspired to Kill a Cat.”

* Terry Patchett

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As we refrain from lifting the box’s lid, we might spare a thought for Charles Babbage; he died on this date in 1871.  A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, Babbage is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer.  Anxious to eliminate inaccuracies in mathematical tables. By 1822, he built small calculating machine able to compute squares (1822).  He then produced prototypes of portions of a larger Difference Engine. (Georg and Edvard Schuetz later constructed the first working devices to the same design which were successful in limited applications.)  In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.

Babbage’s other inventions include the cowcatcher, the dynamometer, the standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the heliograph opthalmoscope.  He was also passionate about cyphers and lock-picking.

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