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Schrödinger's cat

Schrödinger's cat

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Published by Paul Muljadi

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Published by: Paul Muljadi on Aug 12, 2012
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Schrödinger's cat1
Schrödinger's cat
Schrödinger's Cat: A cat, a flask of poison and a radioactive source are placed in a sealedbox. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity, the flask is shattered, releasing thepoison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics impliesthat after a while, the cat is
simultaneously
alive
and 
dead. Yet, when we look in the box,we see the cat
either 
alive
or 
dead, not both alive
and 
dead.
Schrödinger's cat
is a thoughtexperiment, sometimes described as aparadox, devised by Austrian physicistErwin Schrödinger in 1935. It illustrateswhat he saw as the problem of theCopenhagen interpretation of quantummechanics applied to everyday objects.The scenario presents a cat that mightbe alive or dead, depending on anearlier random event. Although theoriginal "experiment" was imaginary,similar principles have been researchedand used in practical applications. Thethought experiment is also oftenfeatured in theoretical discussions of theinterpretation of quantum mechanics. Inthe course of developing this experiment, Schrödinger coined the term
Verschränkung
(entanglement).
Origin and motivation
Schrödinger intended his thought experiment as a discussion of the EPR article
 —
named after its authors Einstein,Podolsky, and Rosen
 —
in 1935.
[1]
The EPR article highlighted the strange nature of quantum entanglement, which isa characteristic of a quantum state that is a combination of the states of two systems (for example, two subatomicparticles), that once interacted but were then separated and are not each in a definite state. The Copenhageninterpretation implies that the state of the two systems undergoes collapse into a definite state when one of thesystems is measured. Schrödinger and Einstein exchanged letters about Einstein's EPR article, in the course of whichEinstein pointed out that the state of an unstable keg of gunpowder will, after a while, contain a superposition of bothexploded and unexploded states.To further illustrate, Schrödinger describes how one could, in principle, transpose the superposition of an atom tolarge-scale systems. He proposed a scenario with a cat in a sealed box, wherein the cat's life or death depended onthe state of a subatomic particle. According to Schrödinger, the Copenhagen interpretation implies that
the cat remains both alive and dead 
(to the universe outside the box) until the box is opened. Schrödinger did not wish topromote the idea of dead-and-alive cats as a serious possibility; quite the reverse, the paradox is a classic reductio adabsurdum.
[2]
The thought experiment illustrates quantum mechanics and the mathematics necessary to describequantum states. Intended as a critique of just the Copenhagen interpretation (the prevailing orthodoxy in 1935), theSchrödinger cat thought experiment remains a typical touchstone for limited interpretations of quantum mechanics.Physicists often use the way each interpretation deals with Schrödinger's cat as a way of illustrating and comparingthe particular features, strengths, and weaknesses of each interpretation.
 
Schrödinger's cat2
The thought experiment
Schrödinger wrote:
[3][2]
One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the followingdevice (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, withequal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases ahammer that 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 systemwould express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out inequal parts.It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomestransformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That preventsus from so naively accepting as valid a "blurred model" for representing reality. In itself, it would not embodyanything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and asnapshot of clouds and fog banks.
 —
Erwin Schrödinger,
 Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantummechanics)
, Naturwissenschaften(translated by John D. Trimmer in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society)Schrödinger's famous thought experiment poses the question,
when
does a quantum system stop existing as asuperposition of states and become one or the other? (More technically, when does the actual quantum state stopbeing a linear combination of states, each of which resembles different classical states, and instead begins to have aunique classical description?) If the cat survives, it remembers only being alive. But explanations of the EPRexperiments that are consistent with standard microscopic quantum mechanics require that macroscopic objects, suchas cats and notebooks, do not always have unique classical descriptions. The thought experiment illustrates thisapparent paradox. Our intuition says that no observer can be in a mixture of states
 —
yet the cat, it seems from thethought experiment, can be such a mixture. Is the cat required to be an observer, or does its existence in a singlewell-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 dated1950, he wrote:You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality, if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing withreality
 —
reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. Their interpretation is,however, refuted most elegantly by your system of radioactive atom + amplifier + charge of gunpowder + catin a box, in which the psi-function of the system contains both the cat alive and blown to bits. Nobody reallydoubts that the presence or absence of the cat is something independent of the act of observation.
[4]
Note that no charge of gunpowder is mentioned in Schrödinger's setup, which uses a Geiger counter as an amplifierand hydrocyanic poison instead of gunpowder. The gunpowder had been mentioned in Einstein's original suggestionto Schrödinger 15 years before, and apparently Einstein had carried it forward to the present discussion.
 
Schrödinger's cat3
Interpretations of the experiment
Since Schrödinger's time, other interpretations of quantum mechanics have been proposed that give different answersto the questions posed by Schrödinger's cat of how long superpositions last and when (or
whether 
) they collapse.
Copenhagen interpretation
The most commonly held interpretation of quantum mechanics is the Copenhagen interpretation.
[5]
In theCopenhagen interpretation, a system stops being a superposition of states and becomes either one or the other whenan observation takes place. This experiment makes apparent the fact that the nature of measurement, or observation,is not well-defined in this interpretation. The experiment can be interpreted to mean that while the box is closed, thesystem simultaneously exists in a superposition of the states "decayed nucleus/dead cat" and "undecayednucleus/living cat," and that only when the box is opened and an observation performed does the wave functioncollapse into one of the two states.However, oneof the main scientists associated with the Copenhagen interpretation, Niels Bohr, never had in mindthe observer-induced collapse of the wave function, so that Schrödinger's Cat did not pose any riddle to him. The catwould be either dead or alive long before the box is opened by a conscious observer.
[6]
Analysis of an actualexperiment found that measurement alone (for example by a Geiger counter) is sufficient to collapse a quantumwave function before there is any conscious observation of the measurement.
[7]
The view that the "observation" istaken when a particle from the nucleus hits the detector can be developed into objective collapse theories. Incontrast, the many worlds approach denies that collapse ever occurs.
Many-worlds interpretation and consistent histories
The quantum-mechanical "Schrödinger's cat" paradox according to the many-worldsinterpretation. In this interpretation, every event is a branch point. The cat is both aliveand dead
 —
regardless of whether the box is opened
 —
but the "alive" and "dead" cats arein different branches of the universe that are equally real but cannot interact with eachother.
In 1957, Hugh Everett formulated themany-worlds interpretation of quantummechanics, which does not single outobservation as a special process. In themany-worlds interpretation, both aliveand dead states of the cat persist afterthe box is opened, but are decoherentfrom each other. In other words, whenthe box is opened, the observer and thealready-dead cat split into an observerlooking at a box with a dead cat, andan observer looking at a box with alive cat. But since the dead and alivestates are decoherent, there is noeffective communication or interactionbetween them.When opening the box, the observer becomes entangled with the cat, so "observer states" corresponding to the cat'sbeing alive and dead are formed; each observer state is entangled or linked with the cat so that the "observation of the cat's state" and the "cat's state" correspond with each other. Quantum decoherence ensures that the differentoutcomes have no interaction with each other. The same mechanism of quantum decoherence is also important forthe interpretation in terms of consistent histories. Only the "dead cat" or "alive cat" can be a part of a consistenthistory in this interpretation.Roger Penrose criticises this:

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