Enter Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen interpretation, which suggested that this probability waveform collapse is actually what is happening: the quantum system has all the different outcomes of the system included in the waveform, superpositioned on top of one another, and not until you actually observe it does it collapse to one outcome or another. “But that’s absurd!” says Erwin Schrödinger, and comes up with his famous cat as a thought-experiment to show how absurd it is. And the experiment goes thus: Put a cat in a box. Also, put a bottle of cyanide poison, a method of releasing the poison (a hammer smashing the bottle), a release mechanism that drops the hammer, a radioactive detector which triggers the release mechanism, and a radioactive sample, for instance potassium-40, tuned so that it is exactly 50% that the detector triggers the hammer and kills the cat within an hour.
People actually don’t. Their belief is much deeper than that, but to understand why, we have to look at what Schrödinger’s Cat actually is. At the beginning of the quantum physics era, Erwin Schrödinger came up with the Schrödinger equation, which describes the wave function of a quantum mechanical system. It works a bit like Newton’s second law, but for quantum mechanics: if you put in a set of initial conditions, Newton’s second law predicts mathematically what path a mechanical system will take over time. Schrödinger’s equation does something similar, but for the quantum wave function, and it predicts the probability of the possible outcomes. So for instance, if you take a potassium-40 atom, you can use Schrödinger’s equation to predict the probability of it decaying or not decaying, and also how it will decay. The curious thing is though that as soon as you observe the result, you determine the outcome of the experiment, and not before. That’s because you somehow have to interact with the system. Not until you do that will the probability waveform collapse into a result.
Now wait and imagine what happens in the box. According to Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen gang, the outcome of the radioactive decay is in a superposition of decay-not decay, which means that the detector is in a superposition of detecting-not detecting, which means that the trigger is in a superposition of triggered-not triggered, and so on, ending in the cat being in a superposition of dead-alive. Not until you open the box and observe the result will the waveform collapse, and lead to a retroactively dead cat or a retroactively alive cat – because obviously it happened in the past. But the quantum system doesn’t know which past happened until you observe it. “But that’s absurd!” Schrödinger argued, and Bohr seems to have just shrugged his shoulder and said “well, that’s how it is.” Schrödinger himself had an idea that the superposition was “not all alternatives but all really happen simultaneously”, which led to Hugh Everett’s Many-worlds interpretation. Nonetheless, quantum superposition, the very core of the thought experiment which has such absurd consequences, does happen, and it is used in for instance quantum cryptography and quantum computers, which use bits of information that can be both 1 and 0 at the same time.
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