Thursday, November 03, 2005

Thawing Out Schrödinger’s Cat

Last week, I was having a conversation in my head with Schrödinger’s cat. That’s the cat that was put into a box by a sneaky subatomic physicist to prove that in the subatomic world the cat could both be alive and dead at the same time. That is the cat that simply didn’t make sense, and didn’t want to, either, by the looks of it. That was the cat that might be alive, and might be dead, but it just wasn’t possible to tell, until we opened the cat’s box a half hour later and had a wee tiny little peek. The half hour in between was seemingly lost time.

Subatomic Physicist Erwin Schrödinger Enjoying a Joke

Check out in particular the microscope lenses for eye pieces, and the hair combed back in the same wave as the bow tie, and the real wide lapels on that jacket, and, I dunno, and is that a bit of electrician’s tape holding the bridge of the glasses together?

Thing is, this whole thing with Schrödinger’s cat was meant to be a joke, to illustrate that since electrons circling an atom were both particles (like rain) and waves (like the ones that lapped at Sally’s feet at the seashore, which we all learned when we were kids, didn’t we?), you couldn’t talk about them in the same way you talked about the certain things of the real world.

Such is the dilemna of quantum physics.

Schrödinger’s Horse-drawn Manure Spreader

Here are a couple of cat jokes that Erwin didn’t think of:

What looks like half a cat ?
The other half !

What do cat actors say on stage ?
Tabby or not tabby!

This is, I believe, because Erwin was a pretty serious guy, and more than six years old. Hell, it was a serious time. Schrödinger’s friend, the subatomic physicist Werner von Heisenberg was trying — or was it not trying? — to build Hitler an atomic bomb. Einstein was trying to get the Americans to build an atomic bomb before Heisenberg built Hitler an atomic bomb. Even William Ohnesorge, the German Postmaster General, was building an atomic bomb in his basement.

In an early instance of the term “Go Postal!” it looks like Ohnesorge beat everyone to it.

William Ohnesorge.
Ohnesorge can be translated as “No Problem.”

It doesn’t look like he had a sense of humour, either.

Well, it wasn’t actually Ohnesorge who built the bomb, but his assistant Baron Manfred von Ardenne, in a bunker built below his house in Lichterfeld-Ost, a suburb of Berlin. Ain’t that just the way. The baron even had a cyclotron down there, in a time when nobody, but nobody, had a cyclotron. The Americans working on the Manhattan Project, trying to build their own big bang, didn’t even have a cyclotron. Down there, the Baron even built the prototype of the V-4 rocket, a kind of piloted rocket-bomb, which a pilot would aim at an Allied bomber stream, and from which he would then parachute at the last possible moment. Later on, a kamikazee program was developed for this little beauty, with the code name Operation Self Sacrifice, but Hitler squashed that idea.

William Ohnesorge got his start in the physics game under the tutelage of Philipp Lenard, the founder of a movement he called Aryan Physics, to differentiate it from the indeterminate kind of physics developed by jewish scientists like Einstein. You know, the kind that put warrants out for cats in boxes: Wanted, Dead and Alive.

Philipp Lenard: The Only Man in the 1940s Who Did Not Build an Atomic Bomb

Lenard received the Nobel Prize in 1905 for work on cathode rays, which was really handy, because you could build radar sets out of cathode ray tubes, but really unfortunate, because Einstein built the photo-electric quantum theory out of them, which led to Schrödinger’s Cat. This made Lenard pretty upset. In 1904 he had done a pioneering study on the size and frequency of raindrops. No one paid any attention.

An early member of the Nazi Party, Lenard joined with Johannes Stark, another Nobel Prize winner in Phyics, to label Einstein’s relativity theory as Jewish Physics, claiming it was unecessarily abstract, morally relative, and out of touch with reality. This is the same argument that Hitler used against democracy, and the same one he used for the purposeful murder of the jewish population of Europe.

It wasn’t just physicists and Jews who were up against it in Germany during the 1930s, though. Even painters of indeterminacy and dream, like Marc Chagall, were ridiculed in Nazi Germany.

Marc Chagall: Self Portrait with Schrödinger’s Horse, Cow, Milkmaid, Church....
in fact, Schrödinger's whole village.

What the Nazis wanted was something you could touch and hold, in which bodies were bodies and the whole 19th Century, not to mention Schrödinger, never happened. What they did do was purge German museums and art galleries of Degenerate Art , by burning it, or selling it in Zurich, Switzerland, to bolster Nazi Party coffers, or maybe use it to commission some real art, eh?

Nazi Art Critic on the Lookout for Degenerate Art

This art style is called Rodin meets the Incredible Hulk bursting his chains.

Oh my.

Over 5,000 pieces were burned. 650 pieces were saved for a special exhibit of degenerate art. This was art that was supposed to have taken itself beyond the boundaries of art, through its, well, aestheticism. The Nazis were dreaming about knights with swords and maybe, just maybe, not any armour. They wanted the Brothers’ Grimm.

The exhibit opened in Munich, then travelled to eleven other cities in Greater Germany. The works -- including many of the masterpieces of twentieth century art -- were poorly hung and surrounded by graffiti and hand written labels mocking the artists. 3,000,000 people came to see the art. The Nazis had to shut the exhibition down.

They tried it with music, too.

Darwin Turned Into Schrödinger’s Cat

In his book Exterminate All the Brutes the Swedish journalist Sven Lindqvist makes the case that Darwin is implicated in genocide in Africa.

No, sadly, with Nazism's roots in folk stories, and the Brothers' Grimm collecting folk tales for nationalistic purposes, and with its insistence on common sense and the measurable, material world, if Lenard had built an atomic bomb, it might have looked much like this:

The Aryan Atomic Bomb

The whole point of all of this is that Schrödinger’s cat does make sense. To say it doesn’t is to step into the old Aryan physics debate. Boo.

Actually, the whole point of all this is that it was all a bad joke, on all sides. Just compare Rodin’s The Thinker with the Nazi with the sword above. If those aren’t the living and dead versions of Schrödinger’s Cat, I don’t know what is.

The Non-Aryan Physicist Thinking, Thinking, Thinking, Thinking, Thinking, Thinking....
But Not Doing.”

Don’t believe it. One of the copies of this sculpture sits in the German National Gallery in Berlin. The force of energy focussed between chin and knuckles has to be seen in 3-D. It is explosive -- but, of course, this is a bronze casting. It’s not about to explode.

You see, Rodin was making a joke, too: his Thinker was really knocking himself out. That’s the thing about artists: they’re actually quite big on irony.

Hitler, it seems, did not understand irony. Here he is listening for the results of the German election of 1933, waiting to see whether he was going to be elected Chancellor or not. He looks very much like a man imitating the old RCA Victor image of His Master’s Voice:

Hitler Listening to His Own Voice?

Pretty earnest, really. Here’s the way it would have appeared on an old 78 record, complete with its fox terrier, Nipper:

Is that Churchill on the Right?
Did Hitler Hear This and Think Churchill Would Listen to Him?
Or is it just Schrödinger’s cat inside there?

If you think that’s so far-fetched, take a look at what the Czechs did with it! It's a whole zoo in there.

Hitler took over Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Sure, it’s worth a few laughs in good company to say that our language doesn’t make sense. Schrödinger proved that when he put his (imaginary) cat in an (imaginary) box and left it for an hour, during which time it may (or may not) have been dead, and when we lifted the lid of the box, ah, then we knew.

Trouble is, that some people don’t have a sense of humour.

Werner von Heisenberg Laughing at Schrödinger’s Joke
Maybe Hitler thought he was laughing at him.

Heisenberg later earned international ridicule for being the only internationally recognized physicist to stay in the Third Reich, where his apparent sabotage of the German nuclear program, apparently prevented Ohnesorge from building an Atomic bomb in 1941, when it would have seemingly won Hitler the war by keeping the Americans out.

What Schrödinger and Heisenberg didn’t tell anyone is that it’s possible to put the cat in brackets, to put it, so to speak, inside a box inside the box, and deal with it later. That’s what language does: you don’t have to do everything all at once.

Maybe they didn’t think about it. Maybe Schrödinger forgot that it’s possible to leave some things uncertain, to move through the world by trust. Maybe that was a hard thing to do in the Third Reich. Maybe he just forgot to tell anybody.

He could have said: You can always put the cat out later. He should have said that. Maybe Heisenberg did. Maybe that's why he stayed behind when everyone else went into exile. Maybe he was making up for lost time. Maybe he was making lost time.

Such is the dilemna of Quantum Physics.

Those guys were all wound up tighter than a top. I think what their whole secret discussion really needed all along is this old low-tech can I found in the bush back of my house yesterday, where it’s been lying for fifty years:

The Path of An Atom from Word to Combustion, Canadian Style

A little perspective.

Next week: What the poets have known about this for a long, long time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You sir are a nutcase of the highest order, but a good read!

7:37 PM  

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