Aug 12

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Where Schrodinger’s At

Erwin SchrodingerThe great violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber was born on this day in 1644. I guess he is technically a Baroque composer but his music doesn’t really sound like it. Of course, it also doesn’t sound like Renaissance either. Regardless, it is beautiful stuff. Here is his Mystery Sonata No. 1:

English composer Maurice Greene was born in 1696. He was an organist and you can definitely hear it in his music. Nonetheless, the music is quite nice. Here is one of this “harpsichord lessons” played on the piano:

Lake poet Robert Southey was born in 1774. Occultist Helena Blavatsky was born in 1831. Hitler’s mom Klara Hitler was born in 1860. Apparently, he never got over her death and that’s why he became a despot. Just kidding! You can’t even make a good Nazi joke anymore! The great American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was born in 1876. Director Cecil B. DeMille was born in 1881.

The great Hungarian abstract painter Tamas Lossonczy was born in 1904 and only died a couple of years ago at the age of 105. Can you imagine living through that period? Actor Jane Wyatt was born in 1910. She is most remembered for playing Spock’s mom on Star Trek. She is also famous for having the good sense to never marry Ronald Reagan. Independent filmmaker Samuel Fuller was born in 1912. You can find some of his films like Shock Corridor complete on YouTube. Actor Fulton Mackay was born in 1922. And the great actor John Cazale was born in 1935. Here he is in one of my favorite films, The Conversation:

TV director Richard L. Bare is 100 today. He directed The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” The great boogieman of the right, George Soros is 83. I read one of his books. He has some good ideas but he is no liberal loon. In fact, I would say he is more or less a New Democrat. But I guess even that is scary to modern day conservatives. Novelist and screenwriter William Goldman is 82 today. I admire his work, but I’m a much bigger fan of his brother James. Still, The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are both great. Speaking of conservative boogiemen, Willie Horton is 62. Remember this ad the next time someone claims that conservatives used to be reasonable:

And the president of France Francois Hollande is 59 today. I had hoped for more from him but there is no doubting that he is infinitely better than Sarkozy.

The day, however, belongs to one of the icons of 20th century physics Erwin Schrodinger who was born in 1887. There were two primary formalizations of quantum theory. The first was Schrodinger’s, which looked at potentialities in an explicitly statistical way. The so called wave equation tends to confuse people, I think. As a result of it people seem to think it has something to do with the particles and waves. Soon after Schrodinger’s work, Werner Heisenberg came up with a different formalism that used infinite matrices. Schrodinger quickly showed that the two systems were the same. Which version of the theory one uses is almost entirely dependent upon what field you are working in. Physical chemists tend to use Schrodinger. Theoretical physicists use Heisenberg. I think you can guess what I prefer.

Schrodinger's Cat

Most people know of Schrodinger because of his cat thought experiment. Here it is from the great name’s own pen:

One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.

In other words, the cat is part alive and part dead. Schrodinger did not like that interpretation of his work and he never accepted it. There are many alternative interpretations. I don’t see the problem. I think that physicists have a tendency to mistake their theories for reality. The universe isn’t like that. It is a testament to our remarkable brains that we can construct models of the universe. But that is all that they are: models.

Still, there is no doubt that quantum mechanics (like all models of the universe) raised important existential questions. Indeed, both Schrodinger and Heisenberg were mystics. And that makes perfect sense—at least to me. What I don’t understand is how anyone can stare into the vastness of time and space and not marvel at it—at times even getting lost in it.

Happy birthday Erwin Schrodinger!

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