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By Dr. Jeff Zweerink
As Erwin Schrödinger cruises down the highway, a patrol officer pulls him over for a suspicious-looking car. The officer strolls up to Schrödinger’s open window and asks for his license and registration and whether the Nobel laureate will allow a search of his trunk. Schrödinger pops the trunk and the officer looks around. Approaching the window again he asks, “Are you aware you have a dead cat in your trunk?” Angrily, Schrödinger replies, “Well, I do now!”
This joke refers to the eminent physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment involving a cat that exemplifies the oddity of quantum mechanics. In the thought experiment, a box contains a cat and a vial of poison that a radioactive atom will trigger upon decaying. Because the radioactive decay is a quantum event, after one hour the atom will be an equal mixture of a decayed state and an undecayed state. According to some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the cat also exists in a mixture of dead and alive states. The really interesting aspect comes in trying to determine the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Some interpretations argue that the mathematical tools used to do quantum calculations, namely the wavefunction ψ, reflect the actual reality of the world and that the cat exists simultaneously in a mixture of disparate states. Others contend that the wavefunction represents our lack of knowledge; the cat is either dead or alive but we won’t know the proper state until we open the box. Even after 100 years of studying quantum mechanics, no experiments give a clear answer on the proper class of interpretations…
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