Saturday, August 23, 2014

Opening Schrödinger's Box

Robin Williams's suicide has gotten me thinking a lot about death (more than usual,) which got me thinking about Schrödinger's cat. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed his "cat-in-a-box" as a thought experiment, and an analogy, to explain some of the "spooky behavior" (to quote Einstein) of quantum physics. In the experiment, a cat is placed inside a box, into which has already been mounted a capsule of poison gas and a hammer with a trip mechanism, connected to a radiation detector. The box is closed, and if the radiation detector senses the decay of a single atom, it trips the hammer, the gas is released and the cat dies. Assuming that you can shield the box from all sources of natural radioactivity, to which we're exposed all the time, whether the cat is alive or dead at any given time is a probabilistic exercise. Schrödinger argued that while the box is closed, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. We don't know the cat's true state until we open the box, at which time we can definitively learn whether the cat is alive or dead (if it's alive, the probability that it's dead is zero.)

Schrödinger was illustrating a paradox of quantum physics, which is that a subatomic particle is in all potential states simultaneously until it's observed or measured, at which time it collapses down to a single state. Let's now use that subatomic particle as an analogy for a human (or animal, or plant) life. While the box is closed, the person is alive; when it's opened, they're dead. So, alive and dead aren't the states that we're interested in. When the person is alive, the have the potential to do an enormous number of things. A baby has the potential to do just about anything. Circumstances (where they're born, how wealthy their parents are, the quality of their schools) can either limit or enhance their potential, but they still have enormous potential. As time goes on, choices they make and choices made for them can further constrain their potential, but even a career choice made fairly early isn't necessarily constraining.

For example, Michael Crichton, author of "Jurassic Park" and many other works, originally wanted to be a writer but switched to anthropology while at Harvard, then attended Harvard Medical School and got his M.D. degree, but wrote novels while still in school. "The Andromeda Strain," which he wrote in 1969, was the first of his books to be adapted into a movie. He started writing television screenplays in 1978, and directed his first film, "Coma," that same year. He was also a father, and given that he was married five times and divorced four, a not-so-successful husband. He could have made a career out of any one of his pursuits, but he was able to do all of them in a 66-year lifespan.

We retain the potential to do many different things throughout most of our lives. We may be temporarily trapped in a job (or lack of a job,) a location or a relationship that limits us, but there's usually a way out. Going back to Robin Williams, even if he had early-stage Parkinson's Disease, he still could have worked for several years, and then turned his attention to his family and to charitable causes, as Michael J. Fox has done very successfully. (I'd argue that the work that Fox has done since largely leaving acting behind, like the work that Bill Gates has done since leaving Microsoft, is far more important and useful to society than the work that he did in his first career.) For Williams, however, depression was the limitation that he couldn't escape or control.

To return to Schrödinger's metaphor, when we die--when the box is opened--all of our potential is gone. We no longer have any options. Our quantum superposition collapses down to one state. We've all heard the saying "Where there's life, there's hope." A more accurate version is "Where there's life, there's options."

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