The cat

I found myself trying to explain to someone about the so-called Schrödinger’s Cat experiment. I am sure you will have heard of it, and it comes in many varieties, but basically is:

  • you take an opaque box, a live cat, some poisonous gas and a device that will release the gas at random. The chance of the gas being released is 50%, and if it is, the cat dies. You put it all in the box and close the lid.
  • After a time, you open the box

At this point, there is some discussion along these lines:

  • the cat will either be alive or dead. As it is in an opaque box and we cannot know, what state is in, we can say the chance of it being alive is 50%. We can say that the cat’s state is 50% alive and 50% dead.

OK, so, firstly, it’s a thought experiment. You could, I suppose, do it for real, but that would be pointless and cruel.

The conclusion does not really mean that the cat is 50% dead and 50% alive. It’s an idea to try to explain something in quantum mechanics. It’s to do with observation. It doesn’t matter what you think the cat is, you can only find out whether it really is alive by observing it in some way (eg lift the lid). In quantum mechanics, the act of observation can affect the object you are observing, but it only applies to very small objects, not cats. This is an analogy, so don’t add more to it than there is.

The person I was chatting with understood it to mean that the cat would literally be half dead and half alive, in some kind of transitional state. And this highlights a problem to do with analogies, and the rather deplorable lack of even general knowledge about science.

It goes with the argument “we don’t understand everything about science, so ghosts and parapsychology and human invisibility could easily exist”.

Sums

I used to enjoy Maths. At school, it was my favourite subject. I was not the greatest at it, but it made sense to me.

Partly, i suppose, I got it from my dad, who had that kind of mind and was good with numbers. I had some great teachers. But mainly, it was logical, more so than History, for example, which was all about learning unrelated facts, something I can never do. I mean, look at the dates of Kings and Queens of England and tell me the logic behind it. None, of course. Chemistry was similar. Possibly there was some kind of logical system in naming organic and inorganic compounds, but it was never explained to me.

We didn’t have calculators in my day. We used books of tables, and great fun it was. You really understood sines and cosines, and could do logarithms like nobody’s business.

I taught Maths in school for a lot of years, and enjoyed it when apparently unrelated topics finally came together and the pupils could see links between, say, trigonometry, complex numbers and hyperbolic functions.

When I would go out, people would often ask ‘what do you do?’ and I told them. Usually you would get ‘I hated Maths’. Sometimes ‘when do I ever need to calculate the area of a parallelogram?’ I do understand that not every person enjoys every subject, and that is fine. But studying Maths helps you think rationally and logically. When presented right it can be really fascinating.

I am sure Stephen Hawking would have agreed.