Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Schrödinger's Dishwasher

For your consideration: an everyday kitchen appliance -- perhaps very much like one in your kitchen -- that's both clean and dirty at the same time:

          Beloved Spousal Unit: "Is the dishwasher clean?"
          Me: "No, I just emptied it. It's dirty now."

At the instant I said that our dishwasher was "dirty" -- and spoke truthfully -- it didn't have a spot of dirt in it. This pristine, yet fallen state would continue for a few more blissfully ambiguous moments until I fouled the nest, defiling our beloved Putzmaschine with the first crumb-stuck breakfast plate and stained coffee mug of the day.

This ambiguous state of our pre-pastried power-scrubber is related to the Physics conundrum known as "Schrödinger's Cat":

          Schrödinger's Cat's a metaphorical cat
          It lives in a box with a nuclear vat
          When a nucleus decays, a loaded gun is released
          And although the box hides it, the cat is deceased
                    ...or is it?
                                                            -t.s. eliot

To the outside world, the cat is unobservable as it waits for the ax to fall; it's unobservable after the ax has fallen. In some external sense, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time.

Or, consider the moment of any creature's demise. Let's say there is one last atom left in a cat's Central Nervous System that has kept the cat alive; for surely there must be a last one, as there must have been a first one. It's down to its ninth life, as it were, and it's the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes. We know from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that the exact position and state of a particle are mutually indeterminate. Is our beloved kitty dead or alive at the indeterminate moment of the last atom's expiration? Or both?

Notwithstanding any of this, our feline friend clearly picked the wrong box to crawl into; it should have selected our dishwasher instead (or else the curtain where Carol Merrill is standing). It might have gotten clean, it might have gotten dirty, or both; but it surely wouldn't have fallen into the clutches of that horrific sadist Erwin Schrödinger, the mere mention of whom, properly framed, could lift PETA's Freshman Orientation Week fund drive to goal immediately.

I saw the following headline recently: "World's Oldest Person Dies".

Not any more.

* * *

UPDATE: Since writing this piece, I Googled "Schrödinger's Dishwasher" to see if Google had indexed the article yet. What I found instead surprised me: one metaphorical variation on Schrödinger's Cat is indeed called Schrödinger's Dishwasher! Imagine dirty dishes inside a dishwasher; then, imagine an atomic switch for the dishwasher whereby the electrical circuit is closed, and the appliance starts, when the atom decays. Are the dishes inside clean or dirty? Or both? It's an equivalent dilemma to the classic metaphor involving an atomic-triggered gun, except that no animals were harmed. Hooray animals!

          It would be such a pity
          If we bumped off the kitty!

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