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Learning Hour: Schrödinger's Cat

Quantum mechanics is weird. It's difficult to understand and even harder to explain. Like, try this: the position of an atomic particle can only be described using probabilities. So the particle is never in any one place -- it is "smeared out" over a range of possible locations depending on its particular set of probabilities. It will never actually be anywhere until it is observed, at which point it seemingly "chooses" a location.

Yeah, I can hear you now: Huh? It's strange stuff to say the least. So a guy named Schrödinger came up with an interesting (and somewhat sadistic) situation to let this play out. He proposed (note: he proposed, he never actually did this) to place a cat inside a box, and place inside the box a machine that would watch the radioactive decay of a one atom of an element. And when the machine senses that the atom has decayed, it would break a vial of toxic gas, which would instantly kill the cat.

Now, the element has a half-life of one hour, meaning that at the end of the hour, there is a 50% chance that the atom will have decayed, and an equivalent 50% chance that it will have not. So after one hour, the likelihood that the cat will be dead will be exactly the same as the likelihood that it will be alive. But we don't know until we open the box and find out.

Here's the strange part: According to quantum physics, until we open the box, the cat is neither alive nor dead. It is in an indiscernable state, and depending on your interpretation of quantum mechanics, it's hard to say what exactly the cat is. But we do know that until we make an observation, nature will not decide; we must be the cat's executioner or savior.

Comments (1)

Mr. Awesome:

Does that mean that I am neither awesome nor unawesome until observed?

Let me save you the trouble:
I am awesome.

Research soon to be published in Esteemed Science Journal Quarterly. Which is a real publication. No need to check using your library science resources.


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