Schrödinger’s Cat Walks Into A Bar With Heisenberg And Steps On A Butterfly

And it is all my fault. I shouldn’t have looked.

My act of looking made the cat decide if it was in the bar or not. It decided it was.

That made Heisenberg look at it and that changed everything!

The poor butterfly didn’t even have a chance to start the hurricane!

Okay, for those not in the know, here are a couple of basic (as in common, not as in simple) ideas science geeks throw around all the time. If you ever attend a science fiction convention I guarantee you will over hear or see something on a t-shirt about one of these.

Schrödinger’s Cat– Okay, first there is no cat. The whole thing is an example made up to try to convey a complicated idea. I will sum the idea up so simply that my summation will be wrong, but at least you will get enough of the gist to get the jokes on the t-shirts.

In quantum physics things happen that we (or at least most of us) don’t quite understand. One of these things is that quantum particles have multiple possibilities, think of a light bulb -it can be either on or off,  and these possibilities all are true at the same time. It gets a little harder here. Think of a tree falling in the woods. If no one hears it, did it make a sound? Okay back to the light bulb -if no one is looking at it, is it on or off?

According to quantum theory the light bulb (as an example, not in reality) would both be on and off. At least until someone looks at it. Then it has to make up its mind. It becomes either on or off.

So the cat idea is like the light bulb, but meaner. An experiment is set up with a cat in a box and a mechanism devised to be set of by the quantum particle (light bulb). Depending on what the particle decides to do, the mechanism will either feed the cat, or poison it. So the particle does both and the cat ends up being both alive and dead at the same time -until someone opens the box to see. That forces the particle to choose (off or on) and either saves or kills the cat. But until the box is opened, both possibilities not only still exist, they coexist as already having happened. The bulb is both on and off therefore the cat is both dead and alive…

Like I said, it is a thought experiment, so give it some leeway. Meanwhile that should be enough to get the jokes. For further reading try Who’s Afraid of Schrödinger’s Cat? The introduction alone explains this idea, then the rest of the book can carry you right on into Stephen Hawking’s world. Maybe. I was too heavy. I didn’t make it that far.

Next is a similar, yet different, idea known as the Uncertainty Principle or the Heisenberg Principle. Named after the man who put the idea out there Werner Heisenberg. This is kind of like ‘looking at it changes it’ the way the cat thing above was, but is more grounded in our world. The idea is that the more accurately we try to measure something, the more inaccurate our measurements will become because the act of measuring affects the thing being measured. (Whew!) Specifically this is about small things moving and trying to figure out how fast they are going and where they are.

Imagine trying to tell me how fast a bullet is going, and where exactly it is. If we try to stop it and say it is right here, then we can no longer measure how fast it is going, because we stopped it. If we say it is moving at 1,800 miles per hour (bullets can be fast!) then you say its here! No wait, it’s here! Over here! Now here! It’s hard to nail down. The best you can do is predict and the more you interfere with the bullet to get a better prediction, the more you have changed what the bullet was doing when you decided to measure it.

Star Trek fans may mention the fictional ‘Heisenberg Compensator’ that made up for this problem when using the transporter to break down an individual to the sub-atomic level and then re-construct them down on the planet.

Then comes the Butterfly Effect an example used to explain Chaos Theory. You may have seen Jeff Goldblum try to describe this in Jurassic Park as the reason why he knew all of the dinos were going to escape and eat people. The basic idea is along the lines of a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and it causes a hurricane that wipes out Texas.

Once again this is oversimplification for a thought experiment. Obviously, butterflies don’t make hurricanes. But the idea of Chaos Theory is more along the lines that initial small actions can have huge effects on final outcomes. Best example, I think is watching a kid with a Hot Wheels car. No matter how many times they start at the same place and try to run the same race track with the same car, it is always a different outcome. Why? All of the little things. Did they push harder this time? Did they start a little to the left, or too far forwards? Did they blow on it? Is there spit on the car now? So many things affect it.

So there you have a couple of geekisms to steady yourself with if your stabilizers begin to fail and your friends begin to out geek you. Next time we’ll see if we can catch you up on secret societies that always get mentioned. Or maybe not. They don’t like it when I mention them.


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