I’ve been thinking…which is a dangerous occupation I know. A friend of mine recently had some exam results coming and wanted to know is she had passed or failed. They were available online but she didn’t want to look Similarly, a colleague of mine was recently sat looking at his pay slip which remained sealed on his desk. I asked him what he was doing and apparently he was owed some back pay but dreaded opening the envelope in case they had got it wrong, again. It seems like procrastination but this got me thinking as I said…
This reminds me of Schrödinger's cat which is a famous illustration of the principle in quantum theory of superposition. Simply put, Schrödinger hypothesised that by observing something we could see (the cat) we could draw conclusions about things we couldn’t see. The cat serves to demonstrate the apparent conflict between what quantum theory tells us is true about the nature and behaviour of matter on the microscopic level and what we observe to be true about the nature and behaviour of matter on the macroscopic level.
The experiment goes like this: Place a living cat into a box (easier said than done!), along with a vial of hydrocyanic acid and a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays, the vial will be broken and the cat will be poisoned. From outside the box, the observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, the cat is both dead and alive according to quantum law, in a superposition of states. It is only when we open the box and observe a cheesed off kitty or a motionless one that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). This situation is sometimes called the observer's paradox: the observation affects the outcome, so that it can never be known what the outcome would have been if it were not observed.
So, from this I was thinking: Whatever had happened to Schrödinger to make him dislike cats so much and is this why some people like to leave their mail unopened (virtual or paper)? To my friend then, the non-opening of mail is not procrastination, it is rather a test of quantum physics. As long as the envelope remains sealed then the exam results (or pay or anything else) is in a state of superposition, it is only when it is opened that my friend passed her exam and my colleague discovered that his pay was wrong…again. This of course assumes that the exam result has not been decided until the envelope has been opened rather than when it was marked, as the point of observation is only when the envelope has been breached.
Now I’m more of a ‘rip the Elastoplast off quickly’ kind of person. I would rather know than wonder, as knowing means I can move on, celebrate or do something about it if I don’t like what I find. I have no control over the marking of my exams but I do have control over what I write down in the exam, so to me it’s a done deal once I hand that paper in. Sometimes I know I have done okay, other times I’m not so sure but I do know that my result depends on what I have written (and perhaps the mood of the examiner when he marks it!). And as I said to my colleague, the fact that his pay was wrong again was practically a certainty though!