Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cat in a Box

One of the biggest news stories this week concerned the discovery of what may turn out to be the smallest thing in the universe, the "Higgs Boson." It sounds like something nautical, but according to one network news site, it's "a subatomic particle so important to the understanding of space, time and matter that the physicist Leon Lederman nicknamed it 'the God particle'." (By the way, I did a little research and discovered that this isn't true. According to Peter Higgs, the physicist after whom the particle was named, Lederman meant to call it the "goddamn particle." His editor changed it to "god particle.")

Apparently, scientists have been searching for this elusive particle for decades. That's why they built the Large Hadron Collider a few years back. (You know—that thing in Switzerland people were saying would cause the end of the universe when it was switched on.) Scientists knew that, in theory, the Higgs Boson should exist, but they couldn’t prove that it did exist—until now. And now they are positively peeing themselves with excitement.

Frankly, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. But that could be because I have difficulty wrapping my head around the atomic, let alone the subatomic. Once upon a time, I was a science major in college, and I was doing fairly well at it—until the professor started talking about atomic bonds and something called "valence," which I always thought was a thing that hangs above a window. I just couldn't grasp it (the concept of atomic bonds—not the thing that hangs above a window), and so I ended up changing my major to English. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives—these I can understand. Protons, neutrons, and electrons? Forget it.

But protons, neutrons, and electrons weren't the end of it, apparently. After college, I started hearing about smaller, subatomic particles and something called "quantum mechanics." I figured I ought to at least try to learn something about the subject. So I picked up a book called Schrödinger's Cat, which was supposed to explain all this stuff in layman's terms.

The title comes from an experiment proposed by a physicist named Erwin Schrödinger, way back in the 1930's. You put a cat in a box with a source of radiation and a flask of poison rigged to a Geiger counter. (A horrible idea, if you ask me. I say if Schrödinger was going to put any living thing in his big box o' death, it should have been himself.) Anyway, according to Schrödinger, when you open the box, you will find either a live cat or a dead cat, depending on the behavior of certain subatomic particles. But until the box is opened—and this is the important part—the cat is both alive and dead. To me, this can only mean one of two things...

The cat is a vampire, or the cat is a zombie.

Either way, if a physicist hands you a box and tells you there is a cat in it, do not, under any circumstances, open it.


  1. My thoughts exactly! Well said

  2. Schroedinger never intended that box to be built. Indeed, he intended the whole thought-experiment as an exercise in absurdity.

    IMHO, the best sort of cat box has easy entry, easy exit, and plenty of fresh Kitty Litter.