Schroedinger's Cat

In 1935 Eric Schroedinger, the biggest loser at the 1927 Solvay Conference,

the conference that embedded Quantum Theory into the body of Physics,

responded to that defeat with a paradox.

In that paradox, a cat is closed into a box that also contains a poison that, if a certain atom decays, will be released and the cat dies.  No decay, kitty  lives.  In Quantum Theory, the cat is in a state of quantum superposition, the notion that an object exists in all possible states until it is observed, at which point the superposition collapses and one possibility becomes true: kitty is either dead or alive.  Until then, kitty's both.

Schroedinger, quite innocently, was pointing out a flaw of quantum superposition: allowing mutually exclusive states to co-exist as equally probable outcomes.  The adepts of Quantum Theory responded with a new superposition: ignoring the paradox as one outcome while attempting to solve it as another.

Those solutions fell into two categories: semantic nonsense, like the one where the cat is its own observer, eliminating the need to open the box, or reworkings of the paradox that introduce new elements lacking in the original, like the one claiming that Schroedinger was imposing Classical terms on a strictly Quantum concept.  In the 70 years of its existence, only one solution took Schroedinger's Cat head-on.

This was the Many Worlds Theory, proposed  by Hugh Everett in 1957, as his PhD dissertation.  With naive faith in the simplicity of pure logic, he concluded that superpositions didn't collapse, they spawned new universes, one for each of the possible outcomes.  In this way, every possibility could be true, the cat alive and dead not in the same universe but two identical universes, except for the fate of kitty.  Better yet, he believed, his theory eliminated the possibility of any outcome contradicting any other and, therefore, further validated Quantum Theory.  Reinforcing that belief was the fact that he got his PhD.

Elated, Everett journeyed to Copenhagen to present his conclusions and their proof to the grand old master of QT, Neils Bohr.  He understandably expected to be embraced as a new, major player in the field but Bohr received him, instead, with an attitude of pained indifference and Everett returned home humiliated, his career in ruins.  While his idea of Many Worlds became fashionable just a few years later, in the 60's, Everett remained a broken man and died as a failed giant.

On reflection, Bohr's attitude towards Everett's solution of Schroedinger's paradox is understandable: that paradox was the biggest threat QT faced.  As long as it remained a curiosity, with this one or that one nibbling at its edges, no one really taking it very seriously, all was well.  But Everett's solution, the only one lacking flaws (theoretically), shone the spotlight on the paradox and raised it from the status of being a curiosity to the status of being a genuine threat.  Everett's solution was so good that, unless his Many Worlds could be proved to exist, it could wind up shaking QT to the core.  Clearly, it was in Bohr's interest to let sleeping dogs lie; so he sent a new PhD with dreams of glory packing.

Everett, himself, failed to realize that, on its face, Many Worlds was ludicrous - like every graduate student who's ever lived, he was immersed in the fantasy world of the imagination, where physical reality has no real meaning, and that was his job: to think and question and come up with stuff like Many Worlds.  The real fault was with his adviser and PhD committee; their job was, not only to evaluate his topic and how well his dissertation tackled that topic, but to bring him back down to reality once the degree was granted, reminding him that, what he saw as a great insight, others would see as one man's opinion and his peers, nothing but competition.

If they had done their job, Everett never would have gone to Copenhagen blinded by great expectations.  He would have gotten a good job at a small private college, begun to build his reputation and, once tenured, blackmail Bohr and the QT establish to keep Many Worlds, if not under wraps, at least very, very low key.  Especially since, far from being a seminal insight, Many Worlds becomes Many Problems when examined closely, collapsing faster than an observed superposition.

First, there's the problem of multiplicity - the shear number of universes created.  One minute on the Earth, alone, would generate trillions of them and then collapsing superpositions in each of those universe would generate trillions more in a chain reaction producing universes in unnameable  numbers.  Universes where Everett never came up with the idea of Many Worlds, universes where his adviser and committee did their job, leaving Everett fat and happy with his tribute, universes where Bohr embraced the idea, universes where Many Worlds validated QT and universes where it destroyed QT and many, many universes where none of these people ever existed.  Then there are the universes with no Big Bang, infinite in space and time, where Huxley is Einstein and the Steady State and the Cosmological Constant rule.  If you can think of a possibility, a universe will spring up to mimic it.

Then, beyond multiplicity, there are the mechanical problems: all of those universe need space and matter.  Space may not be a problem but where do they get all of their matter?  Everett's math provides for the creation of each of those universes but it doesn't supply the dirt or, specifically, the location.  Nor does it provide a mechanism for the transfer of information from the old to the new; in fact, all it does do is suggest the possibility that such universes could exist, spawned by collapse superpositions.

None of that is fatal, just a line of question marks.  It's the self-generated paradoxes that kills the cat.

Here's the kicker: every new universe will begin a new line of evolution based on the history of its parent, the only difference being which possible outcome it represents.  This means that, along with that new line of evolution, that new universe will also have to have the same history as the old universe.  But, being new, it can't.  Being new, any history it posses is, by definition, false but, for that universe to begin its new line of evolution, its history has to be true and we're right back to the beginning, only this time it's not a cat who's dead and alive at the same time, it's entire universes whose histories are true and false at the same time.  Making it worse, the universes with false histories have to have true histories in order to exist and the universes whose histories are true can't exist  because their true histories are really false.  In other words, the meanings of 'true' and 'false' collapse, taking the concept of possibilities with them, and leaving us all with noting but a headache.

It may have been something like this that Bohr instinctively sensed.  As clever as the idea is, Everett's Many Worlds Theory is unworkable and, since it's the only valid solution (meaning that there is no valid solution) to Schroedinger's paradox, Quantum Theory itself is in mortal danger.  If superposition collapses so does the observer effect, taking the Uncertainty Principle with it, and all you have left is particle/wave duality, which leaves you at the mercy of some bright graduate student, sitting on a beach somewhere, watching the surfers in his or her otherworldly daze, whose subconscious suddenly starts murmuring, am I seeing a particle and a wave... both states true at the same time... 


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