Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Could someone explain the Schrodinger's Cat experiment to me?

  1. Aug 29, 2009 #1
    Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?


    I wanted to have an idea of what this experiment is. I just passed my 10th grade and so I don't quite grasp the meaning as it's been explained in Wikipedia. To quote from it:

    "A cat, along with a flask containing a poison, is placed in a sealed box shielded against environmentally induced quantum decoherence. If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when we look in the box, we see the cat either alive or dead, not a mixture of alive and dead."

    @ Bold: This is where I lose them.

    My question regarding this are:
    =What is this experiment used to prove/observe?
    =How can something be both alive and dead at the same time?
    =Is this, by any means, connected to the "Many-Worlds Interpretation"?

    Can someone please cut it down for me to the point that someone with grossly limited knowledge on Physics can understand? Thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 29, 2009 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Hello DarkStalker! :smile:

    =What is this experiment used to prove/observe?
    This thought-experiment doesn't prove anything …
    it's just a description of a situation.

    =How can something be both alive and dead at the same time?
    It just is … that's the way quantum reality works.

    =Is this, by any means, connected to the "Many-Worlds Interpretation"?

    Can someone please cut it down for me to the point that someone with grossly limited knowledge on Physics can understand?

    There isn't really anything to understand … you either accept it or you don't:

    in classical reality, you can say "the cat has a definite state, it is either alive or dead"

    but in quantum reality, you can't say "the cat has a definite state".
  4. Aug 29, 2009 #3
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    I wonder when it was that you read this in Wikipedia. It appears that the article has been improved since you read it.
    I suggest that you go back to it and see if you find a better explanation now.
    Still, there is a flag on top of it that says: This article may be confusing or unclear to readers.
    I'll see if I can give you a short explanation.
    Quantum mechanics says that small particles such as an electron, atom, etc. can be in a "superposition of states". This is quite in contrast to what we observe in every day life.
    Big objects are always at a definite place, move at a definite speed, etc.
    Now, in the case of quantum systems (small systems with quantum behavior), when one interacts with another you get what is called "entanglement". (see the EPR experiment)
    All the analysis of quantum systems involved in the beguinning the interaction between a quantum system and a classical (as opposed to quantum) measurement apparatus.
    Of course the apparatus was some big (macroscopic) thing. Now, it seemed that this distinction between microscopic quantum systems and the macroscopic classical ones seemed arbitrary.
    So some started to suggest that macroscopic objects (which by the way are composed of many small microscopic particles) should be considered to behave also according to quantum mechanics. This is when Schrodinger, who was not very happy with the superpositions) suggested his cat experiment as a way to show that something was wrong with the then current interpretation of quantum mechanics. After the cat interating with the quantum system, it should get entangled with it and end up in a state of both dead and alive at the same time, which obviously we never see. So this is a paradox. And that's what Schodringer intended it to be. But not everybody agreed with him in 1935. Some argued that the cat could be in a superposition and gave some explanation as to why we never see it. One of the explanations was in fact the many-worlds interpretation.
    Today, most physicists think that as soon as the quantum superposition (of whatever triggers the poison vial to break) is amplified to something of a macroscopic size, the superposition is destroyed and you get a dead cat or a live cat (way before you open the door). The process that is said to explain how this happens is called "environmentally induced decoherence". But eventhough decoherence can be interpreted according to the old school ideas (the Copenhagen Interpretation) this phenomenon can also be interpreted according to the Many Worlds Interpretation.
    If you really want to understand these things, I suggest that you continue reading. There is a lot to learn about this. It is not simple. Physicists have been arguing about it for all these years and will probably continue arguing untill it is settled (if it ever gets settled).
    Today there are other experiments that show the weird behavior of quantum systems and a few that may show weird behavior of macroscopic objects too.
    In order to understand these experiments you'll have to learn a little math though. I suggest you study as much physics and math as you can.
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2009
  5. Aug 29, 2009 #4
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    In classical physics, the large scale world we typically observe around us, things are in one state or another, say a coin is EITHER heads or tails when flipped.

    The essential concept in quantum theory is that unlike the classical large world, the sub atomic world not only has a state such as (x) say heads OR tails say (y) but also superpositions like a(x) + b(y)....that is combinations!!!!!!.....so things than be "weird" combinations....but only until we observe them...

    Check out wikipedia, Quantum Superpostion for more...

    And by the way, this "weirdness" has never been experimentally observed...we only observe classical results....it was theoretically uncovered via mathematics...but the classical results we can and do observe match predictions extremely well...what it MEANS is still the subject of discussion/debate/interpretation after perhaps 80 or more years...
  6. Sep 13, 2009 #5
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    There are much better explanations here but if you want a simplistic one, here it is. The "cat" is used to explain the duality that often appears in qm; for example the duality of photons (light.) Do one experiment, such as the Young dual slit experiment and you prove the wave nature of light. Shine a light on certain metals and you produce a current; something that only a particle can do.
    So, it doesn't make any difference whether the cat is dead or alive. It depends totally upon the observer and what he does that determines whether the cat is dead or alive. Similarly; it makes no difference whether a photon is a particle or a wave; it depends upon the experiment you are doing at the time.
    I hope this helps.
  7. Sep 13, 2009 #6
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    It is better to consider a box with a cat at t=0, without the Schroedinger mortal stuff. The box may be in two states - with and without a cat. (Cats like boxes, especially when they are comfortable in them.) Initially the box is with cat: |1>. But with time the cat quits the box so at t > 0 the box is in a superposition state: a|1> + b|0>. The reason for quitting the box may be internal (hunger, for example) and/or external. Anyway, when t → ∞, the box state becomes |0> (an empty box). See an experiment here:
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
  8. Sep 13, 2009 #7
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    At the time Schrodinger invented the experiment it was often said in physics that an intelligence was required to 'collapse the probabilities" in QM. This view was taken to the extent that one prominent physicist stated that 'the moon is not there if nobody is looking'.
    I'm not sure where the dividing line is between quantum superposition and the macro world is, but a cat is definitely above it.
    Schrodinger's cat is an attempt to show the stupidity of this view.
    You can soon reduce the experiment to nonsense by suggesting, for example that the expt. is filmed and the film is stored and only looked at a week later. Does the probability collapse then ? or when it's filmed ?
    Supposing nobody looks at the expt. is the poor cat suspended forever ?
    Maybe a flea on the cat knows if the cat is alive or dead, does this flea collapse the probabilities ?
    Etc Etc.
    The cat is either dead or alive in reality and this doesn't depend on who looks at it.
  9. Sep 13, 2009 #8
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    Some might take issue with the statement that the superposition has never been experimentally observed. What is uncontroversial is that the results of measurement are always single-valued and well-defined to within the limits of experimental accuracy. But there's extensive evidence that these superpositions exist prior to measurement. (Insofar as such a statement can be true independent of what interpretation you ascribe to QM).
  10. Sep 13, 2009 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    The point of this thought experiment is to show that QM implies not only that microscopic systems can be in superpositions of different states, but also that the same thing holds for large and complicated systems. To some people, this suggests that there are "many worlds". To others, it only means that a wavefunction can't be a mathematical representation of the objective properties of a physical system. The alternative is that it's a mathematical representation of the statistical properties of an ensemble of identically prepared systems. Another way of saying that last thing is that we shouldn't think of QM as describing reality, but instead as just a set of rules that tells us how to calculate probabilties of possible results of experiments.
  11. Sep 14, 2009 #10
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    Passing the 10th grade has nothing to do with not understanding this. Like the proverbial kid of old, yes indeed, the emperor has no clothes on!

    All of the word-salad and hand-waving does not change the fact that none of this makes any logical sense. Understand that Quantum Mechanics is what I call the "science of ignorance". Nobody knows what a "probability wave" is or what kind of medium supports and propagates these mythical "probability waves". The fact that it's probability says that the details are basically unknown. But men in their adult ignorance and arrogance have to try to take that one step further and proclaim that the unknown is "unknowable"!

    However in spite of the illogical illucidity of these theories, you you should be made aware that any quest for reason, truth, or ultimate structures of reality will not further any career in science nor aid in the passage of any course work in science. For now such a quest must simply remain it's own reward.
  12. Sep 14, 2009 #11
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    I'd disagree with a great deal of this. I would agree that the process of the collapse of the wavefunction isn't well-defined or understood. But nobody talks about probability waves. Rather, everyone talks about probability amplitudes. Too much is made of "wave-particle duality" in popular science books because it's a strange concept that's easy to describe (if not to explain properly :grumpy:), and it's a phenomena that really only occurs when you expand states in a particular mathamatical representation to find out where something will be. Also, in relativistic quantum mechanics the picture changes considerably, and the existence of particles themselves is down to an operator-valued field which satisfies a wave equation. So the idea of a "medium of probability waves" is wrong. Furthermore, foundational work is being done, in some extremely well-regarded universities. See Imperial or Bristol in the UK, for example. A lot of it is motivated by the experimental importance of decoherence in quantum computing. You might think it's sad that people have needed an experimental motivation in order to take the question seriously, and I'd agree with that, but to portray all physicists as distinterested in truth, beauty or reason is unfathomable. Hell, chemistry is essentially predicted by demanding U(1) gauge invariance. (In the suitably qualified sense that all electromagnetic interactions- including the responses of electrons to nuclear potentials, and those of other electrons, are explained within the framework of QED; to account for the existence of nuclei, you just have to enlarge your symmetry group to the non-abelian gauge group of the standard model- and then you're talking about >90% of physics.). How much more elegant a theory do you want?
  13. Sep 14, 2009 #12
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    If it happens to you to kill a cat and be processed about this crime, you could always appeal to the court saying that it was a quantum mechanics aleatoric event, that it was a indeterministic event beyond your control. if the court has a good knowledge of QM they will find you not guilty, since it was not your free-will.
  14. Sep 14, 2009 #13


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    For an Emperor with No Clothes, Quantum Mechanics certainly has produced an incredible amount of real results and practical uses.

    It's quite logical if you ask me. Following some basic postulates (some of which are 'self evident', some of which are empirical but well-verified) it's all built up quite logically - through math.

    It appears weird and nonsensical because it cannot be rationalized and explained in terms that 'make sense' in terms of everyday human experience. I don't see why Nature would or should be forced to obey that constraint. Sure, it'd be nice if Newtonian physics held true at every scale. But we never had any reason to believe that.

    Of course quantum theory is not the "final theory of everything". Nobody said it was. Unlike Newtonian physics, it's been free of that unwarranted assumption from the start. The search for the Next Big Thing has been ongoing from the start.
  15. Sep 14, 2009 #14


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    Alas, a clever judge will further conclude that the cause-effect chain continues to sentencing, and will find you guilty since he has no free will either.
  16. Sep 14, 2009 #15
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    Actually the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment prove that logical inconsistencies of QM. It works incredibly well, as we know from QED. For this reason physicist should start to think more seriously to alternative (deterministic) theories from which QM emerges at effective level.
  17. Sep 14, 2009 #16


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    What logical inconsistencies?

    Are you confusing your personal tastes with "logic"?

  18. Sep 14, 2009 #17


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    The issue with Schrodinger's Cat can seem quite trivial but in order to see controversy between macroscopic realism and QM one has to remember that probability of finding cat alive or dead can be influenced by procedure of opening the box.
  19. Sep 14, 2009 #18


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    "Schrödinger's cat" shows logical inconsistencies to the same extent that Zeno's Paradox does. It's a problem posed in a certain way to give an apparent contradiction.

    As with Zeno, the reasons for this contradiction are to be found in the question itself. Zeno fools the listener by shrinking distance and length at the same rate. "Schrödinger's Cat" assumes that the 'observing' system can be treated classically while the 'observed' system is quantum.

    The fact that there's yet to be a fully satisfactory answer to the problem of Schrödinger's Cat doesn't mean that QM is logically inconsistent. All it does is tell us that we've yet to fully understand the quantum-to-classical passage and decoherence. That's a subject of active research.
  20. Sep 14, 2009 #19
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    This is way the Schrodinger cat experiment are usually addressed as a paradox.

    Paradox : A paradox is a statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition; or, it can be an apparent contradiction that actually expresses a non-dual truth (cf. Koan, Catuskoti). Typically, either the statements in question do not really imply the contradiction, the puzzling result is not really a contradiction, or the premises themselves are not all really true or cannot all be true together. The word paradox is often used interchangeably with contradiction. Often, mistakenly, it is used to describe situations that are ironic. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox] [Broken]

    Paradox: (logic) A self-contradictory statement, which can only be true if it is false, and vice versa. [http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/paradox] [Broken]

    Refereeing in particular to the latter definition you see that a paradox has a inconsistency with respect, for instance, to the Aristotel truth table. If the cat is alive than is not dead or vice versa. In logic, when one find such a paradox is forced to conclude that there is one or more hypothesis false. The hypothesis in the Schrodinger cat experiment are the QM postulates.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  21. Sep 14, 2009 #20
    Re: Could someone explain the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment to me?

    1) It is the isolated radioactive atom that is in superposition, not the cat.

    2) Wave function describes a set of decay events, not one.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Similar Discussions: Could someone explain the Schrodinger's Cat experiment to me?