The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics
For over 200 years, the laws and theories of Sir Isaac Newton held sway in the world of physics. Today known as classical or Newtonian physics, Newton’s theories were thought to be a complete description of our physical world. Then in the early 20th century, physicists such as Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein noticed that at the atomic level, particles did not behave according to Newton’s laws. Their discoveries led to a new branch of physics, known as quantum mechanics.
The behavior of atomic particles in quantum mechanics is so bizarre, that it almost defies belief. According to quantum mechanics, unless a conscious observer witnesses the actions of a particle, then that particle can be in multiple places at once. According to Andrew Zimmerman Jones of physics.about.com, this tenet of quantum mechanics has been demonstrated numerous times. More precisely, particles exist in a wavelength of possibilities until observed. Needless to say, many physicists were appalled at these theories of quantum mechanics. One such man was Erwin Schrodinger.
According to nobelprize.org, Erwin Schrodinger won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. But following Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, Schrodinger left Germany shortly thereafter. Schrodinger was well-versed on a number of different topics and is rumored to have had one or more mistresses. But after developing a wave equation in 1926, Schrodinger became disturbed with the implications of Bohr’s work in quantum mechanics. To show how preposterous quantum mechanics’ wave-particle duality was, Schrodinger developed a thought experiment that came to be known as Schrodinger’s Cat.
The experiment known as Schrodinger’s Cat has never actually been done; nor is it intended to be. Schrodinger’s Cat proposes that a live cat be placed in a sealed chamber. There are a number of ways to enact the next step, but assume there is an atom, a Geiger counter, a hammer and a flask of poisonous gas in the chamber as well. If the atom hits the Geiger counter, it will trigger the hammer to smash the flask and hence, kill Schrodinger’s cat.
But according to quantum mechanics, if unobserved, the atom is also a wave and exists in multiple locations simultaneously. Therefore, the atom could both trigger the Geiger counter and not trigger the Geiger counter. And then the poison gas would be both released and not released. Finally, Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead! Again, Schrodinger stressed this should never be attempted. It was simply designed to show why he disagreed with the concept of wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics.
For more in-depth reading on this topic and others in theoretical quantum mechanics, Bruce Rosenbaum and Fred Kuttner’s book, “Quantum Enigma” is highly recommended.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones, “Wave Particle Duality,” physics.about.com
“Erwin Schrodinger – Biography,” nobelprize.org
Bruce Rosenbaum and Fred Kuttner, “Quantum Enigma,” Oxford University Press (2006)
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