How Facebook Memes relate to Physics

Imagine this… casually scrolling through Facebook, and then you stumble across this:

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At first, I laughed, it was funny after all. Then, I felt like I should comment something reassuring “no you’ll do great don’t worry!”. But then, being the ever nerd I am, I spotted something much more interesting.

This, my friends, is a classic case of Schrödinger’s Cat. Now, you might be wondering, who is Schrödinger and what’s so special about his cat? Austrian Physicist Erwin Schrödinger discovered this paradox/thought experiment in 1935, which saw a problem in the conventionally accepted method of interpretation of Quantum Mechanics in Copenhagen at the time. Imagine this; a cat, in a box.

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Before we get distracted by how cute the cat is, or the likely difficulties involved in getting said cat out of the box, let’s go back to the physics.

So let’s imagine this cat, in a more accurately sized, aluminium sealed box. In this box is also a hammer. If the hammer hits the cat, the cat dies (I know, devastating). In order forthe hammer to be released, it has to be triggered by the decaying of an atom within a radioactive substance. In simpler terms, a random timer is set, and if the timer goes off, then the hammer is triggered and the cat dies.

HOWEVER, since the timer is random, there is no way of telling how long it will be until it goes off, or if it goes off at all. Therefore, once you close the box, you have no way of knowing if the cat is alive, or dead. In a paradoxical sort of way, the cat is both dead, and alive.

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Some even say that by opening the box and discovering the cat is indeed dead, you yourself have killed it since before it was a 50/50 chance. Of course, this is an overly simplified version of the experiment, but it works to relate back to the Facebook meme. And while on the subject of memes, maybe this one will also make you giggle:

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So now let’s say you have your results envelope in your hand. While closed, you have NO idea what your results are, just the knowledge of how well you think you have performed. You have, in that moment (hypothetically), both passed and failed. Once you open the envelope, you have definitive results and a conclusion to the question, but until then, you lie in a paradox.

In the meantime, perhaps reading this has taken your mind off your impending results, and has helped you to enjoy the serendipity of how humour, science and social media can come together in a strange sort of way – something I’m sure Schrödinger would love to experiment with now. Poor cat….

Written by Joana Baptista, August 2018

 

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