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Schrodinger’s Cat Explained

One of the many ways that we work out problems is using a type of reasoning called thought experiments.  Whether we realize it or not, this isnt just a technique of logic employed by scientists and other academicians.  If you have ever found yourself in a self-induced quandary of thought that caused a mind-blowing type of effect, well, youve unwittingly and broadly constructed a thought experiment.  One of the most famous thought experiments took place in 1935 by Austrian physicist and theoretical biologist, Erwin Schrödinger.  In a reply to what physicists now call The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Physics, Schrödinger wrote a paper using a thought experiment that has come to be known as Schrodingers Cat.  In his proposal, Schrödinger took issue with the Copenhagen Interpretation by exaggerating arguments that at the time constituted a rather new approach to physics provided by Quantum Mechanics.   You see, Quantum Mechanics proposed a way to figure out an atoms behaviour without direct observation.  Mathematical formulae were used not to precisely measure anything about an atom or subatomic particle, but rather to predict where the particle was and what is happening to it.  This opposed the approach employed by Classical Physics in that it precluded and even dismissed the need for direct observation and direct measurements, both basic tenets of science.  The Copenhagen Interpretation argued that particles are not able to be measured precisely, but that one must instead posit probability, because particles behave so strangely in the sub-atomic realm, that attempts at precise measurements are useless.  Needless to say, the quantum world is an odd place where subatomic entities behave nothing like objects in the world around us.  

Check out the video below if you want a quick bitesize explanation of Schrodinger’s Cat. Thanks, LondonCityGirl – great work!

Einstein and Schrödinger found the disagreement between Quantum Mechanics and Classical Physics to be rather disturbing.  So, as an exaggeration of claims made by those espousing the Copenhagen Interpretation, Schrödinger came up with what is arguably the worlds most famous thought experiment, one that is now simply called Schrodingers Cat.  This article aims to explain the famous thought experiment, and thereby shed light just one of the ways that particles in the quantum world behave unlike anything in the visible one around us. 

Aside from being popularized in the American television show The Big Bang Theory, and made prominent by inclusion in numerous internet memes, Schrodingers Cat has remained a relatively obscure element in popular discussions.  Still, in the world of thought experimentation, especially that of physics, it is considered staple knowledge.

Below are the TV Series “The Big Bang Theory” clips. Enjoy!

Schrodingers Cat Explained Further

In his essay, Schrödinger described a hypothetical apparatus, designed to illustrate and even exaggerate some of the stranger consequences of the Copenhagen view of quantum theory.  This apparatus starts with a radioactive substance, which has a half-life of an hour. Due to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, you cant predict when or whether the radioactive substance will decay. It can only be said that there is a 50/50 chance it will decay sometime within an hours time.  This unstable atomic substance is then attached to a Geiger counter. If the substance decays, it will be detected by the Geiger counter, which will cause a hammer to swing, shattering a flask of potent acid. This apparatus is placed along with a healthy cat inside an impenetrable chamber. Finally, the door of the chamber is sealed, and you wait.  This apparatus might seem complicated, but all that really matters is: if the radioactive substance decays, the acid will kill the cat, and if the radioactive substance does not decay, the cat will remain alive.

So essentially, Schrodingers Cat explained involves thinking of the cat as simultaneously dead AND alive because until the chamber is opened, we wont know its condition.  This example aligned itself with the explanation of the behaviour of quantum particles, because according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the precise location, and pretty much the precise anything about a particle cannot be directly observed, only predicted.  In other words, quantum particles behave so strangely, we can only predict where they will be because direct observation causes them to somehow not be where expected.

Man having a eureka moment

Everything exists in every state and every possibility exists. Would opening the lid of the box imply that knowledge is power or that ignorance is bliss? Do we have the power as humans to choose a state of reality that is empowering and favorable to us? Perhaps we can influence our 3D reality by harnessing quantum energies outside our realm of reality. – Thoughts of a Scalar Light Team Member

Does the idea behind prediction over precision hold up to experimentation?  Unfailingly so.  Every prediction of probability about subatomic particles made using mathematical equations has been correct.  Quantum Mechanics is a rather ubiquitous unicorn in the world of physics because it has never failed to be accurate.  

We look around every day and knowingly or unknowingly take a bit of familiar comfort in knowing where things will be.  If one parks their car in a park outside their flat, then goes inside, they expect it to be there, where they left it, upon returning.  When we awaken, we expect to navigate to our homes kitchen using the same staircase or right and/or left turns we took to go to bed.  We expect to see the same family, arrive at the same place of work, and find a familiar restaurant at the same corner or address.  All of these things give us the comfort of familiarity and become second nature.  Oftentimes, our minds drift aimlessly whilst driving to a frequently-visited locale because we have gone there so many times, and found the place right where it was before, we dont even have to consciously seek it out.  Things dont just get up and move just because we arent standing in front of them, directly observing their location.  Well, this is the familiarity that quantum mechanics upended.  In a famous quotation, Einstein expressed his discomfort with quantum theory by saying,

[I can’t accept quantum mechanics because] “I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.”  

But we know now that quantum mechanics and its associated formulae of prediction have never erred.  So, what does this tell us about the nature of the world we cannot see — the quantum world where the things that make up our bodies, the trees, the water we drink, the road we walk upon, exist?

Schrodinger's Formulae

It tells us that our senses are not the only basis for empirical facts.  It bids us open our minds and realize that things are more strange and less familiar than we may ever understand.  Strangely enough, the same man who found such discomfort with the behaviour of quantum particles, discomfort to the point of vociferous dissent, seemingly contradicted himself by his own entreat to us:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.

Informational Sources:

The Great Courses Daily

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Notable Quotes


Einstein, Albert.  On Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms 1931.

Schrödinger, Erwin. “Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantum mechanics)”. Naturwissenschaften. 1935.

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