12.18.2011

Schrodinger on Relationships


For the longest time, my friends have been telling me I should watch "The Big Bang Theory," a comedy show about four geeky geniuses who live across the hall from a beautiful (albeit simple-minded) girl named Penny. Well, my friends were right - I bought the first season on Amazon for $18 about two weeks ago, and I've been hooked ever since.

Image courtesy of Pop Tower

Although the show profiles the lives of scientists, physicists, and engineers, it is a comedy, so I wasn't expecting anything really profound from it. Therefore, I was both surprised and impressed by the writers of this show when Sheldon - a genius theoretical physicist who normally misses about 1000 social cues throughout the 20-minute duration of the show - offers Penny a bit of relationship advice based on Schrodinger's famous thought experiment. (There's a tiny spoiler ahead, so beware...) Penny is concerned that if she decides to date Sheldon's roommate, Leonard, the relationship may end badly, ruining her friendship with Leonard. But she can see that Leonard is a smart and sweet guy - different from those she usually dates - and she wants to give him a chance.



Sheldon explains to Penny about Schrodinger's cat - there's a box with a cat in it, as well as some radioactive material, a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, and a hammer. The radioactive material has an equal chance of decaying or not decaying, but if it decays, a relay will cause the hammer to smash the vial of poison, thus killing the cat. To those outside the box, the cat can be thought of as both alive and dead, until one or the other state is actually observed.

Sheldon suggests to Penny that her relationship quandary is just like the thought experiment - as of the moment, it is both bad and good. She's got to open the proverbial box to discover which it will actually turn out to be.

Now that is genius.

Exceptional relationship advice aside, I know it's hard to think of the cat as both alive and dead. In fact, I'm sure some of you will insist that the cat is either alive or dead, we just need to look inside the box to know the truth of the matter. And you are pretty much correct, because Schrodinger's cat is less a picture of superposition than it is an attempt to show the effect of microscopic indeterminacy on macroscopic systems. In other words, fascinating, mind-bending little occurrences in quantum physics really could, and probably really do affect "big" organisms and systems like cats, or like you and me.

Image courtesy of "Quantum Tantra"

Bear with me, here, because I've been thinking about this for a long time, partly because of a desire to incorporate it into my book, and partly as a result of musing over how free will and predestination might both be possible, because I think that they are - we just don't understand how these two truths relate. Which brings me to the double-slit experiment. (The opening lines of episode one, season one of "The Big Bang Theory" are about this very topic...)

I'm sure you're all familiar with the double-slit experiment, but to make my point, I have to touch on the major implications of the famous experiment. The fact that an 8-bar interference pattern still appears on the back wall even when only ONE photon is fired through at a time means that light is a particle wave - consisting of particles, but behaving like a wave. Not that earth-shaking, I know. Or is it?

Image courtesy of "Ask A Mathmetician/Ask a Physicist"

The appearance of the interference pattern on the back wall means that when that one single photon was fired toward the two slits over and over and over, sometimes it went through one slit, sometimes it bounced off the wall and didn't travel through, and sometimes it traveled through bothBoth at the same time. This is not a thought experiment, this is a real experiment. The weirdness of this truth and the mysterious nature of our universe never cease to give me chills every time I contemplate the double-slit experiment.

The weirdest part is that when the photon is observed, it does not create the interference pattern. An observer collapses the wave function of a particle wave. So this got me thinking... What if our lives are like particle waves? What if the choices we are going to make in the future - 10 years from now, a month from now, a minute from now - are not clear, not "nailed down," if you will? What if the final interference pattern - the way it will all turn out - is set, but the moves we will actually make, because they have not come to pass, are not certain? If you believe, as I do, that an intelligent being exists who is responsible for the creation of the universe, would that intelligent being not be the ultimate observer, its eye on us validating the paths of our lives? Would it not be the only intelligent mind that has ever been truly alone, with no one to observe it? In a universe where atoms are in superimposed states, cats are somehow both alive and dead, relationships hang in the balance, and we have a lot more yet to discover, it is a comfort to know there is someone out there with a plan, a plan that does not nullify our choices and volition as human beings.

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