- Schrödinger's cat
Schrödinger's cat is a
thought experiment, often described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödingerin 1935. It illustrated what he saw as the problem of the Copenhagen interpretationof quantum mechanicsbeing applied to everyday objects, in the example of a cat that might be alive or dead, depending on an earlier random event. In the course of developing this experiment, he coined the term Verschränkung (entanglement).
Origin and motivation
Schrödinger's thought experiment was intended as a discussion of the EPR article, named after its authors:
Albert Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen in 1935 [ [http://prola.aps.org/abstract/PR/v47/i10/p777_1 EPR article: Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?] ] . The EPR article had highlighted the strange nature of quantum superpositions. Broadly stated, a quantum superposition is the combination of all the possible states of a system (for example, the possible positions of a subatomic particle). The Copenhagen interpretation implies that the superposition only undergoes collapse into a definite state at the exact moment of quantum measurement.
Schrödinger and Einstein had exchanged letters about Einstein's EPR article, in the course of which Einstein had pointed out that the
quantum superpositionof an unstable keg of gunpowderwill, after a while, contain both exploded and unexploded components.
To further illustrate the putative incompleteness of quantum mechanics Schrödinger applied quantum mechanics to a living entity that may or may not be conscious. In Schrödinger’s original thought experiment he describes how one could, in principle, transform a superposition inside an atom to a large-scale superposition of a live and dead cat by coupling cat and atom with the help of a ‘‘diabolical mechanism.’’ He proposed a scenario with a cat in a sealed box, where the cat's life or death was dependent on the state of a subatomic particle. According to Schrödinger, the Copenhagen interpretation implies that the cat remains both alive and dead until the box is opened.
Schrödinger did "not" wish to promote the idea of dead-and-alive cats as a serious possibility; quite the reverse: the thought experiment serves to illustrate the bizarreness of
quantum mechanicsand the mathematics necessary to describe quantum states. Intended as a critique of just the Copenhagen interpretation—the prevailing orthodoxy in 1935—the Schrödinger cat thought experiment remains a topical touchstonefor all interpretations of quantum mechanics; how each interpretation deals with Schrödinger's cat is often used as a way of illustrating and comparing each interpretation's particular features, strengths and weaknesses.
The thought experiment
Schrödinger wrote:Quote|One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A
catis penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counterthere is a tiny bit of radioactivesubstance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a "blurred model" for representing reality. In itself it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks. [ [http://www.tu-harburg.de/rzt/rzt/it/QM/cat.html#sect5 Schroedinger: "The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics" ] ] The above text is a translation of two paragraphs from a much larger original article, which appeared in the German magazine "Naturwissenschaften" ("Natural Sciences") in 1935. [cite journal
title=Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantum mechanics)
thought experimentposes the question: "when" does a quantum system stop existing as a mixture of states and become one or the other? (More technically, when does the actual quantum state stop being a linear combination of states, each of which resemble different classical states, and instead begin to have a unique classical description?) If the cat survives, it remembers only being alive. But explanations of the EPR experiments that are consistentwith standard microscopic quantum mechanics require that macroscopic objects, such as cats and notebooks, do not always have unique classical descriptions. The purpose of the thought experiment is to illustrate this apparent paradox: our intuition says that no observer can be in a mixture of states, yet it seems cats, for example, can be such a mixture. Are cats required to be observers, or does their existence in a single well-defined classical state require another external observer? Each alternative seemed absurd to Albert Einstein, who was impressed by the ability of the thought experiment to highlight these issues; in a letter to Schrödinger dated 1950 he wrote:Note that no charge of gunpowder is mentioned in Schrödinger's set-up, which uses a Geiger counter as an amplifier and hydrocyanic poison instead of gunpowder; the gunpowder was only mentioned in Einstein's original suggestion to Schrödinger 15 years before.
In the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, a system stops being a superposition of states and becomes either one or the other when an
observationtakes place. This experiment makes apparent the fact that the nature of measurement, or observation, is not well defined in this interpretation. Some interpret the experiment to mean that while the box is closed, the system simultaneously exists in a superposition of the states "decayed nucleus/dead cat" and "undecayed nucleus/living cat", and that only when the box is opened and an observation performed does the wave functioncollapse into one of the two states. More intuitively, some feel that the "observation" is taken when a particle from the nucleus hits the detector. This line of thinking can be developed into Objective collapse theories. In contrast, the many worldsapproach denies that collapse ever occurs. Steven Weinbergsaid:Quote|All this familiar story is true, but it leaves out an irony. Bohr's version of quantum mechanics was deeply flawed, but not for the reason Einstein thought. The Copenhagen interpretation describes what happens when an observer makes a measurement, but the observer and the act of measurement are themselves treated classically. This is surely wrong: Physicists and their apparatus must be governed by the same quantum mechanical rules that govern everything else in the universe. But these rules are expressed in terms of a wavefunction (or, more precisely, a state vector) that evolves in a perfectly deterministic way. So where do the probabilistic rules of the Copenhagen interpretation come from?
Considerable progress has been made in recent years toward the resolution of the problem, which I cannot go into here. It is enough to say that neither Bohr nor Einstein had focused on the real problem with quantum mechanics. The Copenhagen rules clearly work, so they have to be accepted. But this leaves the task of explaining them by applying the deterministic equation for the evolution of the wavefunction, the Schrödinger equation, to observers and their apparatus. [cite journal
Everett's many-worlds interpretation & consistent histories
many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which does not single out observation as a special process, both alive and dead states of the cat persist, but are decoherent from each other. In other words, when the box is opened, that part of the universe containing the observer and cat is split into two separate universes, one containing an observer looking at a box with a dead cat, one containing an observer looking at a box with a live cat.
Since the dead and alive states are decoherent, there is no effective communication or interaction between them. When an observer opens the box, they become entangled with the cat, so observer-states corresponding to the cat being alive and dead are formed, and each can have no interaction with the other. The same mechanism of
quantum decoherenceis also important for the interpretation in terms of Consistent Histories. Only the "dead cat" or "alive cat" can be a part of a consistent history in this interpretation. Roger Penrosecriticizes this:
although the mainstream view (without necessarily endorsing many-worlds) is that decoherence is the mechanism that forbids such simultaneous perception.
Wojciech H. Zurek, Decoherence, einselection, and the quantum origins of the classical, "Reviews of Modern Physics" 2003, 75, 715 or [http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0105127] ] Wojciech H. Zurek, Decoherence and the transition from quantum to classical, "Physics Today", 44, pp 36–44 (1991)]
A variant of the Schrödinger's Cat experiment known as the
quantum suicidemachine has been proposed by cosmologist Max Tegmark. It examines the Schrödinger's Cat experiment from the point of view of the cat, and argues that this may be able to distinguish between the Copenhagen interpretation and many worlds.
Ensemble Interpretationstates that superpositions are nothing but subensembles of a larger statistical ensemble. That being the case, the state vector would not apply to individual cat experiments, but only to the statistics of many similarly prepared cat experiments. Proponents of this interpretation state that this makes the Schrödinger's cat paradox a trivial non issue.
Taking this interpretation, one discards the idea that a single physical system has a mathematical description which corresponds to it in any way.
Objective collapse theories
objective collapse theories, superpositions are destroyed spontaneously (irrespective of external observation) when some objective physical threshold (of time, mass, temperature, irreversibilityetc) is reached. Thus, the cat would be expected to have settled into a definite state long before the box is opened. This could loosely be phrased as "the cat observes itself", or "the environment observes the cat".
Objective collapse theories require a modification of standard quantum mechanics, to allow superpositions to be destroyed by the process of time-evolution.
In theory, since each state is determined by the one previous to it, and that from its previous state, ad infinitum, pre-determination for every state would have been achieved instantaneously from the initial "threshold" of the
Big Bang.citation needed|date=May 2008 Thus the state of the dead or alive cat is not determined by the observer; it has already been pre-determined from the initial moments of the universe and the ensuing states that have successively led up to the state referenced in this thought experiment.
The experiment is a purely theoretical one, and the machine proposed is not known to have been constructed. Analogous effects, however, have some practical use in quantum computing and
quantum cryptography. It is possible to send light that is in a superposition of states down a fiber optic cable. Placing a wiretap in the middle of the cable which intercepts and retransmits the transmission will collapse the wavefunction (in the Copenhagen interpretation, "perform an observation") and cause the light to fall into one state or another. By performing statistical tests on the light received at the other end of the cable, one can tell whether it remains in the superposition of states or has already been observed and retransmitted. In principle, this allows the development of communication systems that cannot be tapped without the tap being noticed at the other end. This experiment can be argued to illustrate that "observation" in the Copenhagen interpretation has nothing to do with consciousness (unless some version of Panpsychismis true), in that a perfectly unconscious wiretap will cause the statistics at the end of the wire to be different.
In quantum computing, the phrase "
cat state" often refers to the special entanglement of qubits where the qubits are in an equal superposition of all being 0 and all being 1, i.e. + .
Although discussion of this thought experiment talks about "two" possible states (cat alive and cat dead), in reality there would be a "huge number" of possible states, since the temperature and degree and state of decomposition of the cat would depend on exactly when and how, as well as if, the mechanism was triggered, as well as the state of the cat prior to death.
In another extension prominent physicists have gone so far as to suggest that astronomers observing
dark matterin the universe during 1998 may have "reduced its life expectancy" through a pseudo-Schrödinger's cat scenario, although this is a controversial viewpoint. [cite web
title =Mankind 'shortening the universe's life'
The Daily Telegraph
accessdate = 2007-11-25 ] [cite web
authorlink =Marcus Chown
title =Has observing the universe hastened its end?
accessdate = 2007-11-25 ]
Another variant on the experiment is
Wigner's friend, in which there are two external observers, the first who opens and inspects the box and who then communicates their observations to a second observer . The issue here is, does the wavefunction collapse when the first observer opens the box, or only when the second observer is informed of the first observer's observations?
In popular culture
Interpretations of quantum mechanics
Quantum Zeno effect
* Erwin Schrödinger, [http://www.tu-harburg.de/rzt/rzt/it/QM/cat.html The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics (Translation)]
* [http://prola.aps.org/abstract/PR/v47/i10/p777_1 The EPR paper]
* [http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_122.html The story of Schroedinger's cat (an epic poem)] ;
The Straight Dope
* [http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/525 Tom Leggett (Aug. 1, 2000) New life for Schrodinger's cat, Physics World, UK] Experiments at 2 universities claim to observe superposition in large scale systems
* [http://www.amazon.co.uk/Search-Schrodingers-Cat-John-Gribbin/dp/0552125555] A good popular account of the puzzle.
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