The Continuing (Superpositional) Adventures of Schrödinger’s Cat
~ David Hewitt
Erwin Schrödinger’s famous feline thought experiment on quantum uncertainty should require no introduction. As a quick refresher, Schrödinger himself expounded it thus:
. . . A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device . . . in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube . . . releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. [Until an observer opens the chamber] the psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
Recent theoreticians, however, consider Schrödinger’s formulation over-simplistic. Before the box is opened, the cat cannot be said to exist “smeared out” over only the two states—alive and dead. Rather, this daring hypothetical adventurer simultaneously exists, with varying statistical likelihood, in every conceivable state of its own wave function. What follows is a by-no-means-exhaustive summary of possible outcomes, and hence co-existing states of being, revealed by continuing analyses of “the cat problem”:
• An atom decays; the hammer strikes the flask of hydrocyanic acid; the cat dies of cyanide-induced histotoxic hypoxia.
• An atom does not decay; the hammer does not strike the flask of hydrocyanic acid; the cat does not die of cyanide-induced histotoxic hypoxia and lives happily and healthily to a ripe old age.
• An atom does not decay during the one hour; but in the name of thoroughness and replicability, the scientist repeats the experiment the next day. This time, an atom does decay and—hammer, cyanide—the cat dies.
• An atom does not decay on the first day, nor when the experiment is repeated on the second, nor even on the third; but on the fourth day, though the clear and present odds are still a simple 50/50 coin toss, the cumulative 15-to-1 odds against surviving four such coin tosses in sequence finally catch up with the cat and . . . hammer, cyanide—dead.
• The cat survives the first, the second, the third, and even the fourth day. On the fifth day, the scientist, who originally intended an even five experimental trials, has a change of heart. Just as the atom is decaying, she hurls open the door of the steel chamber and, as the hammer is falling, yanks the subject out and tumbles to the floor with cat cradled in her arms, saved in the nick of time from the grim clutches of cyanide-induced histotoxic hypoxia. The scientist takes the cat home, names her Princess Purrsnickitty, and the two live happily ever after.
• The scientist experiences no change of heart, but just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, a joint PETA/Animal Liberation Front strike team armed with crowbars bursts into the laboratory, and liberates the cat into the uncertainties and vast open spaces of the suburban wilds.
• Just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, not animal-rights commandos but an ASPCA lawyer sporting a stodgy suit, a questionable comb-over, and a restraining order bursts into the laboratory, and liberates the cat into the uncertain and vastly time-consuming and expensive vagaries of the United States judicial system.
• Just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, neither PETA/ALF commandos nor ASPCA advocate but rather two blue-tufty-haired, red-jumpsuited individuals burst into the laboratory. Running full tilt and wreaking general havoc by toppling sensitive equipment, a coffee maker, and even a fish bowl, they free the cat through happenstance from the steel chamber and flee. Because of the suspects’ breakneck speed, blurry security footage provides only one lead: a single frame in which the cryptic letters -ing 1 and -ing 2 can be discerned on the backs of the jumpsuits.
• Just as an atom is about to decay, the cat reaches into a magic fourth-dimensional pocket on his belly and extracts an “Anywhere Door”; he transports himself out of the steel chamber and into the bedroom of a young Japanese boy who, though receptive to the cat’s aid and tutelage, never masters the important life lessons the cat endlessly strives to impart.
• The atom does not decay; the cat will live another day, it seems—but wait! Just as the chamber is opened, a gleeful-looking Maya-blue mouse rushes into the laboratory, carrying a giant drill and a hose with a suction cup at one end. The mouse drills his way into the steel chamber, slaps the suction cup onto the cat’s muzzle, squeezes cartoonishly through a hole into the perforated box where the flask of cyanide sits, screws the other end of the hose to the mouth of the cyanide flask, and flips the hammer’s trigger with a white-gloved hand. The hammer smushes the flask, squeezing all the cyanide out as a visible bulge which travels up the hose, through the suction cup, and into the cat. The cat turns a grotesque shade of green and its eyes a jaundiced yellow, then its fur and skin melt from its bones, and the bones themselves dissolve into a steaming puddle of acid with a pair of yellow eyes lolling on top. The mouse kicks one then the other eye, shot-on-goal style, and scampers off in the height of good cheer.
• An atom decays; somebody erred, however, and, in place of hydrocyanic acid, filled the flask with rye whiskey. When the hammer strikes the flask, the cat, goaded by the stress of its captivity, laps up the rye. Outside the sealed steel chamber, the scientist, who can know nothing of all this, takes a glass flask from his pocket and sips. He could swear he’d filled it with rye this morning, but the mouthful he sips has a distinctly non-whiskey, almond-like flavor.
• An atom decays, but rather than triggering the hammer, the ionizing radiation flies in another direction and collides with a spider which, unbeknownst to anyone, crept into the steel chamber before the experiment began. Bitten by this spider, said cat gains the spider’s proportional strength and agility (the latter resulting—since arachnid agility rates much lower than that of family felidae—in a net agility loss). The cat uses this super-strength to break free from its captivity, and goes on to fight for cat-truth, cat-justice, and the Siamese way.
• An atom decays; the cat is poisoned and dies, and is buried unceremoniously under a rock. On the third day, though, the rock is miraculously rolled aside—the cat, licking itself, rises from the grave as savior to all catkind, having paid with its suffering for the original sin of the first cat-ancestors, Muffin and Max, who selfishly tasted of the catnip of the Tree of Sloth and Hyperactivity.
• An atom does not decay, but neither does the cat live to a ripe old age. Instead, loose in the neighborhood, it is run over by a car the very next day—but the bereft scientist inters it in an ancient Native American burial ground. Two days later, the scientist hears a scratching at his door, and either does or does not open it; in either case, his own story ends in a manner that may with 93.2% probability be described as “bloodcurdling.”
• Just as the cat is being placed in the steel chamber, not PETA/ALF commandos, not ASPCA advocates, not red-jumpsuited hooligans, but rather a wealthy private benefactor arrives at the laboratory to rescue the feline, offering a generous research stipend in compensation. This benefactor, an older gentleman in tweed jacket and wrinkled trousers, brings the cat home. Soon after, a meeting is arranged with an editor from a major publishing house. The result is Eight More Lives: My Journey Through the Steel Chamber (ghostwritten). The hardcover release hits #6 on The New York Times Best Seller list and paves the way to the cat’s starring on the popular but horribly ill-conceived reality show Pussies and Pitbulls. Against all odds, our hypothetical feline hero emerges victorious, leaving a trail of savaged canine bodies in her wake. But she is a changed cat—hardened, unstoppable, eyes blazing with plutonium potency and heart hell-bent on revenge. Against all her benefactor’s protestations, the cat gives herself over once again to science, this time volunteering for a ludicrously improbable time-travel experiment. The experiment succeeds, transporting the cat a century into the past. Through hard-won cunning and craft, this survivor among survivors, this titanium-willed tiger among tabbies, makes her way to her target. The next morning, a young Erwin Schrödinger is found dead in his bed—of histotoxic hypoxia. No evidence of forced entry or a struggle is found. In fact, Schrödinger’s demise, mere days before he formulated his famous paradox, renders the existence of the thought experiment, the cat, and this story alike—
(With a 99.967% probability, very likely) The End
David A. Hewitt was born in Germany, grew up near Chicago, and spent eight years in Japan, where he studied classical Japanese martial arts and grew up some more. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in Popular Fiction, he currently teaches English at the Community College of Baltimore County, but has at various times worked as a Japanese translator, an instructor of martial arts, a cabinetmaker’s assistant, a pizza/subs/beer delivery guy, and a pet shop boy.
His hobbies include skiing, writing, meditation, writing, disc golf, travel, and writing.
His short fiction has appeared in Kaleidotrope, Metaphorosis, and Mithila Review; his novelette “The Great Wall of America” is also available from Mithila Press as a standalone book. As a translator of Japanese, his credits include the anime series Gilgamesh, Kingdom, and Kochoki: Young Nobunaga.