Houdini’s cat

Today’s Rhymes With Orange cartoon is a takeoff on Schrödinger’s cat:

Looking ahead a bit, a Schrödinger’s cat joke (SCJ) involves the pairing of a concrete object (in this case, a cat) and a pair of opposed states (in this case, present vs. absent (in a carrier)) and maintains, preposterously, that the object is simultaneously in both states (in this case, that the cat is simultaneously present and absent in the carrier). In the SCJ above we don’t have evidence that the cat is or was both present and absent at the same time, but instead some simultaneity of the two states is inferred from other facts: like Houdini in one of his escape tricks, the cat was in the carrier when its owner left the house and there was no way it could escape from it — see the chains and lock — but it’s now, at the vet’s, visibly no longer there.

In the original Schrödinger’s cat story, it’s the act of observing atomic particles that (indirectly) causes the cat to be in one or the other of the opposed states. That effect is hard to carry over to the observation of large-scale objects like cats, so I think we’ll just have to take state-switching to be one of the conventions of SCJs. In the real-world Houdini situation, the state-switching (between presence and absence) is a willed act on Houdini’s part; it’s a trick. That doesn’t carry over to the Rhymes situation, unless we’re willing to credit a cat that can pull off an elaborate magic trick. We should probably take the strip to be a silly riff on conventional SJCs, with Houdini as an extra, his magic providing a vehicle for vanishing and reappearing.

The original atomic-particle story. From the Wikipedia entry on Schrödinger’s cat:

[Erwin]Schrödinger described [to Albert Einstein] how one could, in principle, create a superposition in a large-scale system by making it dependent on a quantum particle that was in a superposition. He proposed a scenario with a cat in a locked steel chamber, wherein the cat’s life or death depended on the state of a radioactive atom, whether it had decayed and emitted radiation or not. According to Schrödinger, the Copenhagen interpretation [of quantum mechanics] implies that the cat remains both alive and dead until the state has been observed. Schrödinger did not wish to promote the idea of dead-and-live cats as a serious possibility; on the contrary, he intended the example to illustrate the absurdity of the existing view of quantum mechanics.

That is, the possibility of an atomic particle being in two states at once — until it is observed — is used to predict that some large-scale system could be in two states at once — again, until it is observed.

The popular simplification. This possibility is then generalized to the idea that some large-scale system, like a concrete object (say, a container, a cat, or a human being) could be in two incompatible states at once, never mind all that atomic particle stuff. SCJs can then be constructed using this framework, of concrete objects paired with opposed states. The Houdini Rhymes strip, for example, pairs:

concrete object: a cat / opposed states: present vs. absent

Now, three more SCJs from this blog (in addition to Houdini Rhymes), with notes on the concrete object / opposed states in each case.

— from my 3/26/15 posting “The cat at the vet’s”, with the cartoon caption “About your cat, Mr. Schrödinger — I have good news and bad news.”:

The vet in the cartoon uses the “good news – bad news” formula to explain things to Schrödinger: the good news is that the cat is alive; the bad news is that the cat is dead

concrete object: a cat / opposed states: alive vs. dead

— from my 6/24/20 posting “Annals of ambiguity:I  feel like making it rough for Schrödinger”, with a photograph, labeled Schrödinger’s Dumpster, of a dumpster with the signage: EMPTY WHEN FULL.

concrete object: a dumpster (a kind of container) / opposed states: full vs. empty

— from my 12/14/20 posting “A bit more Schrödinger”, with a section on Schrödinger’s cat, and a cartoon on Jesus in the tomb being both alive and dead (according to some Christian belief).

concrete object: Jesus / opposed states: alive vs. dead

There are, no doubt, more SCJs out there.

One Response to “Houdini’s cat”

  1. Mitch4 Says:

    Physicist and cat-person Sean Carroll, in his non-specialist writing and videos etc, sometimes describes the experiment in terms of a fast-acting sleeping gas, not a fatal poison gas; and the cat’s states as Awake and Asleep, not Alive and Dead. This is certainly a more pleasant one to hear!

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