Wave function, thought experiment collapse

This is one of the cats who brought a group of Fermilab scientists bad luck. Photo: Vicki Burton

For better or worse, recently Fermilab scientists experimentally tackled Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, known as “Schrödinger’s cat,” and in so doing, learned that the question it posed was wrong. The question is not, they learned, “At what point does the cat stop existing in a superposition of quantum states?”. It is, rather, “Does this cat bring bad luck?”

Preliminary results show that the answer to the latter question is “Yes. Every time.”

According to one interpretation of the 1935 thought experiment, a possibly poisoned cat in a box is simultaneously alive and dead (undead, if you will) until someone observes the cat. Only at that moment is the cat definitively alive or dead. Until then, it is in a superposition of alive and dead states.

A recent late-night conversation on this thought-provoking, ghoulish scenario — ghoulish even for a thought experiment, and “even for Erwin,” one of the scientists said — got a few Fermilab scientists thinking. After several rounds of stormborn brainstorms and proposals, they set up their experiment.

Not wanting to subject any cat to suffering (and sufficiently unsettled by the implications of a boxed-in, undead cat) Fermilab’s Quantum Cat Detection (QCD) Group went with a variation Schrödinger’s original. Taking advantage of recently available technologies, they would give the feline subject an easy-to-swallow quantum pill that would color the cat orange or black. Using a special electromagnetic probe, the QCD Group would then observe the moment that the superposition of orange and black states collapsed, and thus when the cat was definitively one color or the other.

They didn’t get very far. Strange things started happening.

The first cat scratched at the inside of the box so incessantly that a sympathetic member of the QCD Group opened the box to free her. The cat, whose fur was black, swatted at the scientist with his sharply clawed paw and ran off. The scientist later contracted a strange infection and left the group.

Correcting course, QCD scientists handsomely accommodated the second cat, placing him in a room-sized, carpet-lined space full of toys. The day the scientist opened the box to let out the cat — a black short-hair —she learned that her paper, the culmination of seven years of research and declared by confidants to be Nobel-level work, was rejected by the scientific journal she’d most hoped to be published in.

On the day the third cat was tested (black cat), a scientist looked into a neutrino detector saw no sterile neutrino. The day the fourth cat (which, BTW, was black) was released, Fermilab codified a new, strict dress code: no more shorts. And when the fifth black cat was observed, all the parking spaces near Wilson Hall were already taken.

With each test, the bad-luck cases became more maddening. On the day that cat number 9 (black fur, green eyes, round ears) was released, a detailed solution to an equation was erased from a third-floor chalkboard in Wilson Hall, despite the presence of “DNE” in one corner. Black cat 11 seemed to bring with it a typographical error — MINERVA — on a report. And when cat number 13 turned black, the cafeteria’s salad bar was inexplicably low on ingredients, notably ranch dressing.

It was the cat hair that broke the experiment’s back. The QCD group began to distrust their cats, noting a correlation between their release from boxes and the scientists’ unspeakably bad and rare luck. They discontinued the experiment. RIP, QCD.