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  • Narrative/Science Entanglements:On the Thousand and One Literary Lives of Schrödinger's Cat
  • Marie-Laure Ryan (bio)

Science has a notorious history of using animals for its experiments. The two most famous of these unfortunate creatures are a canine and a feline, Pavlov's dog and Schrödinger's cat. Pavlov's dog shows all the features of a well-trained, obedient dog: he drools predictably when he hears the sound of a bell. Schrödinger's cat, by contrast, behaves with the whimsy that should be expected from a self-respecting feline: nobody knows whether he is dead or alive, or maybe even both at the same time, in the box where he has been locked up together with a contraption that has a fifty percent chance of killing him. Another difference between Pavlov's dog and Schrödinger's cat is that the dog really existed, while Schrödinger's cat inhabits a purely imaginary world. The whole scheme is a thought experiment designed by Erwin Schrödinger to explore what his equation actually means for the nature of reality. Fortunately, no real cat has ever lost one of its lives to what would be otherwise an extreme case of animal abuse.

The interpretations of Schrödinger's cat parable have been legion, and so have been the lives of the famous feline. In this paper, I will use Schrödinger's cat as a test case for the study of the relations between narrative and science. I will follow the development of the parable from science to fiction, that is, from its initial appearance as an example meant to make a point in an otherwise abstract, purely argumentative paper, to its narrative emancipation where the cat figures as a character or a symbol in a story worth reading for its own sake.

Let us first take a look at the cat's original appearance on the scientific scene. To do so, we will need a little bit of background on quantum mechanics. The behavior of subatomic particles—such as electrons—cannot be predicted with accuracy. Under the same conditions, electrons will follow sometimes one trajectory, sometimes another, [End Page 171] and the results of experiments on their behavior cannot be duplicated. Their trajectories are not only unpredictable; they are also discontinuous: electrons jump from one position to another without going through the intermediary stages—pretty much like teletransportation in a video game, except that this movement targets only certain locations, rather than taking them everywhere. There is even evidence that particles behave like waves: when photons move through a wall with two slits in it, they seem to go simultaneously through both slits and interfere with each other, or even with themselves, as they come out on the other side, thereby creating a wave pattern.

In 1929, Schrödinger developed an equation that describes the quantum state of a system as a wave that evolves over time (Crease 214). This equation has produced such reliable results that it is almost universally considered the foundation of quantum mechanics, but there is no agreement as to what it means for the nature of reality. When Schrödinger worked out the mathematical steps necessary to apply the equation to reality, he found out that they included an imaginary number; according to this solution, the wave function has a phase that is not directly observable. The interpretation of this discontinuity is hotly debated: it could mean that the equation, instead of describing objectively existing states of reality, only describes probabilities that certain states will occur (Schrödinger hated this interpretation, which was proposed by Max Born). Or it could mean that electrons enact simultaneously all the possibilities predicted by the equation, thus existing in a superposition of states. But when we perform experiments we find them in only one place. This reduction is known in physics as the collapse of the wave function.

Einstein, a realist at heart, had severe reservations about quantum mechanics; he rejected the idea that the behavior of electrons can only be described in terms of probabilities with the famous phrase, "God does not play dice with the universe." Schrödinger was also a realist...


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