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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Jimmy and the Cat in the Box

Jimmy was sitting in the garden pondering how quickly and easily things could be forgotten.  He could remember what things were like before the year 2000 but somehow he couldn’t remember why or how.  For instance, he knew that before then cars ran on four wheels instead of just hovering smoothly in the air.  But he couldn’t remember how the wheel  thing worked or why anyone would go to the trouble of making something that screeched around corners and bumped over potholes and could only go forwards and backwards instead of side to side and up and down as well.  Making a car that hovered seemed so simple and obvious that the alternatives seemed downright perverse.  And so it was with everything else.  Why hadn’t people lived in cities surrounded by great plexi-glass domes instead of putting up with all that fog and rain?   Why go to all the trouble of cooking and eating huge meals when you could just swallow a few pills and be out to play again in a minute?  Why spend time and money on being unhappy when everyone could just live together in peace and harmony?  No, the more he thought about it the more it seemed to him that the past was just plain stupid.
Thinking of food reminded him that it the day was wearing on and he ought to go in for his dinner pills.  He wondered what they would taste of today.   Shepherd’s pie and apple crumble?  Sausages and rhubarb and custard?  He licked his lips in anticipation.  

It was later that afternoon that he found the cat in the box.  Or rather, it was the box he found.  It was made of polished wood andit looked as though it had been used for something else first as there seemed to be some sort of foreign writing on the lid.  On the side of the box was a curious contraption made of wires and odd pieces of mechanism.  The box had been left on the doorstep and there didn’t seem to be any label saying who it was for. Jimmy couldn’t decide what he should do with it but when he picked it up and shook it hewas certain he could hear a frightened mewing noise.  Jimmy’s father was out on the supa-golf course and his mother was busy ironing the plasti-form curtains.  They didn’t actually need ironing as they were made of a smooth hard plastic but Jimmy’s Mother insisted she ironed them every week anyway as she liked to keep busy.  So Jimmy’s father said.
Jimmy looked over the fence and saw to his relief that his friend Tommy Smith had been released from his extra lessons with his father and, after a few words, Jimmy was carrying the box anxiously round to the Smith’s house.
Mr. Smith tapped his pipe out in the visi-fireplace.   “Hmm.” He said.  
“I think there might be something in there.” said Jimmy anxiously. “I’m sure I heard it making a noise.  But its quiet now.   I think it might be a cat.”
Suddenly, Mr Smith smiled.  “it’s a little joke I think.  From Professor Von Plonck. “
“A joke?”
“He always was a bit heavy handed with his jokes.  He’s a theoretical physicist.  They’re very good at thinking up ideas but, oh dear... this box.    And Mr Smith began to chuckle so much his teeth rattled against his pipestem
“But the cat...” Jimmy was getting agitated that there might actually be a cat shut in the box.
“The box.  It’s a very poor job.  Rather amatuerish.  It’s definitely meant for me.  But I see what he’s trying to say in his theoretical way.”
“What about the cat?”  Jimmy’s voice was rising in anxiety.   “Is it a cat?”
“Oh yes, its a cat right enough.  Old Von Plonck and I were having a bit of joke about it down at the government lab the other day”
“Shouldn’t we let it out?  Won’t it die if we don’t do something? ”
Mr Smith was now guffawing as merrily as a troll.  “Is it dead or is it alive?  That my boy , is the joke.
Jimmy was looking very bewildered indeed.
“Tommy, you should be able to explain.  After all, we have just been having a rather amusing time with quantum mechanics, have we not?”
Tommy looked as if he was about to say something but then stopped.
“Come down to my shed and let me explain.“  Mr Smith put his arms round Jimmy and Tommy’s shoulders and led them out into the garden.
Mr Smith’s shed was really his laboratory where he carried out secret experiments for the government and tried out all sorts of complicated machines and devices but Jimmy waas relieved to see that he had a very ordinary hammer and chisel poised against the lid of the box.
“First of all.”  Said Mr Smith.  “Before I actually prise off the lid tell me whether you think the cat in the box is alive or dead?”
“I hope it’s still alive” said Jimmy with feeling.  “But its been in there a jolly long time.”
“What do you think Tommy?  Alive or dead?”
Tommy thought for a moment.  Jimmy interrupted “I don’t think there is any way of knowing whether its alive or dead.  Until we get the box open.”
“Bravo Jimmy.  That’s a perfect answer.  And if we heard it miaowing we would know.  But as we cannot hear it we can’t know one way or the other.  That is the joke.”
By now Jimmy and Tommy were both looking completely baffled.
“Actually its a very old joke and the Professor obviously wanted to send it to me as a reminder. He must have  dispatched the box to the wrong address.  I told you he is only a theoretical  physicist and coordinates in time and space are not his thing.”
“But I don’t see what the joke can be.”  Said Jimmy still anxious about the cat inside.
“It was a joke first thought up by an Austrian scientist called Schroedinger.  He got into a bit of a paddy at a conference on Quantum physics because people didn’t like his ideas so he dreamt up this experiment to show the others how silly he thought their ideas were. “
Mr. Smith began filling his pipe again. “These other scientists, pricipally a Dane called Heisenberg  had said that in the quantum world it is impossible to know what state a particle is in without looking at it.  But once you look at it you automatically make it one thing or another.  So, as you could never know which state a particle was in, it was, in effect, in both states at once.”
Mr. Smith seemed to be enjoying himself immensely with the story.  “So this Schroedinger chappie said, as a joke, that if you put a cat in a box with a cannister of poison gas triggered by a quantum particle you could never know whether the particle had triggered the poison gas or not.  So all the time the cat was in the box, to all intents and purposes the cat was both alive and dead at the same time.  Or neither.”
Jimmy began to sob.  “Please let the cat out.” He said gulping.
Mr Smith looked at Tommy.  Even he was looking a trifle green.
“Very well, let’s see, shall we?” and he set to work with the chisel.  Suddenly the lid of the box clattered to the floor.  No cat jumped out.  Jimmy was afraid to look.  He didn’t want to think that he had had some hand in gassing a poor moggy.  Then Mr.  Smith began to laugh.   Softly at first and then louder and louder.
The more Mr. Smith laughed, the more Jimmy felt like crying.  “It’s all right Jimmy.  Look in the box.” Chortled Mr. Smith.  With a supreme effort, Jimmy opened his eyes and peered in.   “Look!  Look at this.”   Mr. Smith was holding a grey canister.  “Was this the poison gas?” Jimmy thought.  “How terrible that there should be such a thing.”    Suddenly Mr Smith was tilting it backwards and forwards.  As he did so a mewing noise issued from it.  It was a pussy-matic noise maker.  Jimmy had seen them in joke shops in the town.  Now he was laughing as much as Mr. Smith who waved the noisemaker backwards and forwards  making it miaow non-stop.
“Yes,” said Mr Smith.  “This amply demonstrates  Schroedingers point.   Without opening the box and looking we couldn’t tell whether the cat was alive or dead.  As it happened, it was neither alive nor dead.  Good old Von Plonck.  A bit heavy handed but a good joke all the same.  And of course, Jimmy, do you know what the best bit of the joke was?”
“N-no” stammered Jimmy
“Well, in the end the joke was on old Schroedinger.  He set up all the cat business to prove the other scientists wrong but in the end it turned out that they were right and he was the one who looked stupid.  The cat in Schroedingers box IS alive and dead.  It’s called superimposition.  It means that all possibilities are present at one and the same time.  I mean for instance there is another year 2000 out there where there are no silver suits and hovercars and domes.  And another Jimmy who doesn’t eat pills for tea. But has buttered toast and jam and rides in his father’s Ford  Anglia.  Do you see?”
And with that Jimmy remembered that here in the real world of 2000 there were silver suits and hover cars and any other possibilities just didn’t matter.

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