Of Cats And Cancers

In life as in quantum physics, we sometimes exist in a state of superposition. What happens when the wave function collapses?


AsianScientist (Jan. 29, 2016) – Schrödinger’s cat has always been my favorite physics story to tell, for all its Orwellian qualities and near comical life and death scenes. Long ago, my friend and I once debated the possibility of Schrödinger’s cat being in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur at once, and also the unclear gender of said cat. However, the story of Schrödinger’s cat is fatalistic: there can only ever be one outcome.

The Schrödinger’s cat paradigm is a thought experiment devised in 1935 by Erdwin Schrödinger. The scenario is based on the quantum superposition principle—very similar to the classic superposition theory in physics—that states: any two or more quantum states can be added together and result in another valid quantum state.

The cat in question exists in a sealed chamber, along with a flask of poison, a radioactive source, and a Geiger counter. Should the counter detect any trace of radioactive activity, the flask breaks, releasing the poison that kills the cat. After a certain amount of time and leaving the system alone, because we do not know what the true lifestate of the cat is, we think of the cat as both alive and dead simultaneously. However, when we look into the chamber, the cat can only either be alive or dead.

Letting the cat out of the box

Schrödinger’s cat is applicable to a variety of real life scenarios. The paradigm was referred to famously in one The Big Bang Theory episode, in which Leonard Hofstadter seeks out relationship advice from Sheldon Cooper about what to do about Penny, to which Sheldon simply replies: “Schrödinger’s cat.”

Sheldon explained to a baffled Penny, “The relationship between [you] and Leonard is both good and bad, and until [you] do date, no one would ever know.” Penny and Leonard got married some eight seasons later. The cat is, as Leonard exclaimed, well and alive.

Less happily, when I found out that my father had stage 3 gastric neuroendocrine cancer last month, I immediately thought of Schrödinger’s cat once more.

When did the tumor begin to grow? Why did he not feel anything more than a dull satiety and bloating prior to the gastroscopy? Has the tumor always been there? The finitude of life bore down upon us, a hurtling and painful train of thoughts: when, who, how, and why him, especially?

Living in superposition

By any universal standard, my father is considered a very fit man at any age. Within the last two months, he has run a half-marathon, finished an Ironman, and run a 210km ultramarathon in Cambodia over the course of six days. These are not isolated events that occur every few years, but are challenges that he chooses to do of his own volition annually. He’s been doing endurance races for the past twenty years. Within my family, we do not receive any accolades for having finished several full marathons. Dull aches and pains are very minor complaints.

As such, his symptoms went largely unnoticed. He had been experienced some feelings of indigestion, and fullness. These are not uncommon feelings, given his lifelong propensity for bloating due to a love for food. However, my mother insisted that he get checked out to rule out ulcers and gastric cancers as the cause of prolonged indigestion.

Lo and behold, it turned out that there was a large tumor growing in the lower section of his stomach that seemed to be progressing at an alarming rate.

The cat rears its mangled body: my father had existed in a dual state of being healthy and ill as he ran the half-marathon, Ironman, and ultramarathon. The radioactive counter had detected the faintest hint of radioactivity, the flask had broken and the poison had been released. But, he did not know all this; the chamber was still sealed shut to our minds. Only when the gastroenterologist looked in, did he finally realize that he is, indeed, ill.

Yet, as we begin treatment for my father, we now look to another chamber, another chamber that contains another cat whose lifestate we do not know. Here, the cat could very well be alive.

This article is from a monthly column called Our Small World. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Source: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Jie Qi/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Annabel is currently a 2nd year Masters in Public Health student at Yale University. She received her MEng in biomedical engineering from Imperial College London in 2010. She spent the summer of 2014 researching substance abuse in Tanzania. She has a keen interest in food, yoga and metal music.

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