Is Schrödinger's Cat Really Dead?

Emily Johnson


A philosopher named Abner Shimony makes a puzzling remark. He states:

"Physical systems cannot be said to have definite properties independent of our observations."

By this, does he mean we give our world existence by looking at it? This would seem to be paranoid delusion, though this man is quite sane. He's merely explaining Schrödinger's Cat, a theory understood by that of quantum mechanics.

The riddle of the cat begins with Heisenberg's Uncertainty idea: the most precise measurement we could ever make would be to shoot one photon of light at a moving object. But even so delicate a peek will change the position and motion we're trying to measure. At best, you always measure with some uncertainty.

So by saying this, we're saying that a precise measurement is unthinkable. Therefore, it must be correct to assume that the world has no ultimate precision to measure. We must take the next step and say that, ultimately, we; or the world, are indeterminable. We admit electrons have fuzzy edges, that they can make a 'quantum jump' from one quantized state to another.

Schrödinger though of a paradox, where you have a led chamber with a cat inside. Along with a Geiger counter, where inside is a tiny bit of radioactive substance. So small that perhaps in the course of one hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, it doesn't. If an atom does in fact decay, it will trigger a hammer which will smash a small flask of hydrocyanic acid and therefore kill the cat. But we don't know – not until we open the box.

Physicists conclude goofy things: maybe the cat in the unopened box is both alive and dead at the same time. Steven Hawking, the physicist who writes about black holes from his wheelchair, throws up his hands and cries: "When I hear of Schrödinger's cat, I reach for my gun."

In the end, when the hour is up; we must check the chamber and see whether the cat is alive or dead. But before we check, we must remember something. We watch the chamber in anticipation, while the cat is in stasis, and know that the cat is both alive and dead and the same time. This is obviously false; the cat cannot be both dead and alive at the same time. This was meant to illustrate the Uncertainty Principle. Schrödinger came up with this illustration to demonstrate that there was a problem with this theory of quantum mechanics.

So it is that the observer determines the truth. We're left to wonder if scientists aren't far more deeply interwoven with the world they observe than they would like to be.

-Emily Johnson