Scroedinger's Cat is alive and well (or dead)

An explanation that avoids the cat being dead AND alive.

1st Edition. Copyright © 2020 by David Stringer.

Popular science often uses Schroedinger's Cat as a way to show just how weird quantum theory is. The theory seems to show that the poor cat, when locked in a box with a poison that might or might not be released, will be in some combination of alive and dead until we open the box and check. The very act of observing the cat forces it to become either alive or dead at that instant.

Schroedinger's cat: alive and dead?
Image of Schroedingers cat

Illustrated by Dhatfield. License

One serious problem with this awful experiment (I like cats) is that you can never see or even record the cat in this strange sort of limbo state. Any attempt to "observe" the cat, even remotely, actually causes it to snap into a state of definitely alive or definitely dead.

What presenters of popular science often omit to mention is that Schroedinger invented this thought experiment to demonstrate how wrong our understanding of Quantum Theory must be. He was not saying that Quantum Theory was itself necessarily wrong. His point was that the scientific community's interpretation of Quantum Theory did not make sense when applied to our everyday world of cats, boxes and poisons. This could mean that the theory is wrong but, with the benefit of hindsight, a century later, we find that the theory has withstood all attempts to disprove it.

What seems much more likely is that the interpretation of Quantum Theory is wrong. The theory itself is, like all such theories, a very precise thing focusing on data, facts and mathematical equations. It is not the place for flowery explanations that would be readily understood by the non-expert. The interpretation of a theory, on the other hand, is a sort of translation of its technical content into everyday language. This wordy version of a theory is required to make it accessible to students, other scientists and, to a lesser extent, the wider public. For a theory as fundamental as Quantum Theory, its interpretation might even offer a new understanding of what the universe is and how it all works.

You don't need to have studied science to have a good understanding of the world around you. We humans would not be here if our ancient ancestors had not understood basic features of our environment. We all have a conception of far and near, the passing of time, how things move, light and dark, hardness and softness, even gravity. Apples fall from trees, can be thrown, hurt when they hit you, can be eaten etc. This raw understanding of the world came long before science.

In modern times, science has added to our knowledge but has it changed this basic view of how the world works? I suggest that it has not. In fact there are two good reasons why science has not significantly changed our intuitive worldview:

The discoverers of Quantum Theory found that it was virtually impossible to explain their theory in everyday terms. This was not just because the details were complicated, which they certainly were. The problem was that the things that happened in quantum experiments just didn't make sense when compared with things that happened in our normal experience. The quantum worldview, so to speak, was so different from our intuitive worldview that the two could not be compared. As a simple example, it might seem reasonable to compare the motion of an electron with the motion of a pool ball. Both of these things have a measurable property called mass. But an electron does not move in the same way as a pool ball. Nor is there any day-to-day object that moves anything like an electron moves.

An electron doesn't so much move as disappear from one place and reappear at another. What is more, the route from where it was to where it is can be around corners, through solid objects and via several different places at once. We never see an electron actually moving. The idea that it moves at all is really only deduced from the fact that we can make it disappear from one place and then know all the possible places we might find it subsequently. By the way, if you think you have seen a particle moving, in a cloud chamber for instance, what you actually saw was a sequence of static places where it arrived-then-left. You can add more and more static places but you can never see it moving between one and the next. If pool balls moved like this, we would see ball-hits-ball collisions but we would never see any ball between collisions.

Quantum Theory has another twist. It seems to show that an electron is brought back from its limbo state (where it is between collisions) by being observed. However, the theory doesn't explain why observations are needed, how an observation causes an electron to come out of limbo or precisely what is an observation and what is a non-observation.

Back to Schroedinger's cat in its sealed box. The poison might or might not be released, depending on the motion of an electron say. The early discoverers of Quatum Theory had implied that, since the electron was in a limbo state until observed, so was the cat. Indeed, the mathematics of the theory do seem to show this. Some argued that the cat would be the observer and would therefore bring the electron out of limbo. But the theory showed that while this was the case for the cat, it wasn't true for an observer outside the box. Apparently, the whole cat-in-the-box only comes out of limbo when the inside of the box gets observed by an outsider. What's more, the scientist looking inside the box, being inside a laboratory, was also in limbo until an observer outside the laboratory looked in! Does this sound crazy? Well that was exactly Schroedinger's point. It is crazy, It is a paradox. It cannot be right. The question is now "What exactly is wrong?"

It would be so easy to assume that Quantum Theory is wrong and of course it might be. But it has been around for about a hundred years during which time it has not only survived all tests but has proved to be perhaps the most successful theory ever. It is much more likely that the interpretation of the theory is the thing that is wrong.

Interpretation of theory is explanation of its content in a much broader and therefore looser way than a published scientific paper. A text book on any topic is one place you will find interpretation. Such books use a lot of wordy explanations and metaphors that relate the new topic to other simpler subjects that we are more likely to be familiar with. Interpretations of Quantum Theory typically try to relate the actions of fundamental particles such as electrons to the actions of ordinary objects like pool balls and bullets.

The problem for any interpreter of Quantum Theory is that there are no ordinary objects that act like fundamental particles. This is true even though ordinary objects seem to be made of fundamental particles. Now, one can quickly tie oneself in knots trying to sort out this conundrum but I believe the most obvious answer is that fundamental particles are not objects.

What? How can a particle not be an object? Again, the simpler answer: They are not particles! They are not things. They are not entities that move about in space. Whatever is going on at the fundamental level of the universe, it is not bits of stuff moving about.

Let's go back to that raw worldview that we all have in our heads. We look out through our eyes and see objects, lots and lots of them. The world seems to be made of things, stuff, objects, substance, solids, liquids and gases. What if that's wrong? Actually let's not say "wrong". Let's say that seeing the world as a volume of space full of moving objects is the best possible way of surviving in that world. The fact that the idea of objects is appropriate for survival doesn't mean that the universe actually is that way.

In "The Freeze-frame Universe" I present a new interpretation of science that is radically different from the usual one. My interpretation is entirely based on current science and does not change any existing theories. It just helps us see the universe in a different light. There is nothing spooky or mystical about it, no mention of spirit or intelligent design. One of the main differences is that it focusses on the "collisions" between particles rather than the particles themselves. This leads to a universe in which events take centre stage and particles only exist as properties of events. It has several other major features that differ from the usual interpretation and yet it explains how we end up seeing the world as space filled with moving objects.

If "The Freeze-frame Universe" is right, Schroedinger's cat will be as alive or dead inside the box as it would be if we were constantly observing it. If it is not right, it does at least show that an alternative view of reality is possible, one that is consistent with science. Assuming Quantum Theory is right, our intuitive view of reality must be wrong. And whatever the right view is, it will have to be as radical as the Freeze-frame Universe.

See The Freeze-frame Universe for the full story.