The Return of Schrödinger’s Kitty

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Schrödinger’s kitty has returned for a visit. She is older now, almost full-grown, and able to take us on more sophisticated thought experiments.

The original Schrödinger’s cat was a “thought experiment” proposed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger about quantum mechanics. Heady stuff that we don’t have to rehash here, except that you need context:

Take a hypothetical cat.
Seal it in a hypothetical box with a hypothetical poison.
A trigger inside the box releases the poison at a hypothetical random time. 
Without opening the box, how do you know whether the cat is alive or dead?

I’m neither a physicist nor a cat person, but I understand two things here.

  1. Quantum mechanics says certain particles can exist in more than one state. They settle on one when the particle is observed.
  2. No live cats were harmed in this thought experiment.

Experiment 1: Condition

On her first visit, neither the house nor the host was cat-proofed. That meant the guest kitty was restricted to a guest room. The thought experiment was simple. Without opening the door and exposing her to the maze of clutter and the allergy-ridden host, how do we determine if she was safe?

It can’t be done. Not really. Sound might help — if you hear something, she’s probably OK. If you hear something loud, she’s probably not. And if you hear a repeated mewing, she might be lonely or looking for help.

But what if you hear nothing? Nothing tells you, well, nothing. The cat could be awake, sleeping, alive, dead, waiting to pounce — or not there at all.

This led us to continue our experiments, this time on a larger scale. That’s appropriate; after all, the kitty is on a larger scale now — almost full-grown.

Experiment 2: Observation

In this experiment, one of the observers increased his allergy medication enough to give the cat a wider territory in the house. The observation area expanded to include most of the main floor and living quarters. Now the quantum state of the cat could be readily observed without guesswork.

A kitten at rest stays at rest…

Except when it can’t. Like neow.

Now sound is no longer a key element in observing the status of the cat. Sound is elusive. So is the cat.

Like some strange subatomic particle, the cat is hard to track. Sometimes she shows up in one place and stays there.

Moments later, she may be gone, nowhere to be seen.

At such times, the observers may find themselves searching the house for signs of the feline. She is not by the window, watching the birds. She is not trapped in the off-limits bedroom (which would require further experiments regarding teleportation.) Not downstairs. Not in our favorite chair (which is now her favorite chair).

… until she reaches some other quantum state.

Does the kitty even exist, or has the house reverted to some catless state?

This demands further experimentation.

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