The Nine Lives Hypothesis, or Why Schrödinger’s Cat Can Never Die

Today’s story was inspired by my recent Sciency Words post on Schrödinger’s cat.  I cannot emphasize enough that this story is not meant to be taken seriously.

It is often said that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics is either lying or delusional.  In 1935, world-renounced physicist Erin Schrödinger proposed an experiment to demonstrate the true absurdity of all things quantum.  The experiment came to be known as Schrödinger’s cat. Now today, despite the vehement protests of animal rights groups, researchers at Omni-Science Laboratories have conducted the first ever real world test of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment.

A cat is placed inside a test chamber, along with a sample of cesium-131, a radioactive isotope.  A contraption within the test chamber will either kill the cat or spare the cat’s life, depending on what that cesium isotope does.  If the cesium undergoes radioactive decay, the cat will die.  In not, the cat will live.  The conditions of the experiment are so devised that the cat should have an even 50/50 chance at survival.

But according to the bizarre laws of the quantum world—the world of atoms, including radioactive cesium atoms—nothing is real unless it is being observed.  In the absence of an observer, anything and everything that can happen does happen, all at once, all jumbled together in a coexistent meta-state.

And so once the test chamber is sealed and its contents can no longer be observed, the laws of quantum mechanics should take over. The cesium isotope simultaneously does and does not decay.  The killing apparatus simultaneously has and has not been triggered. The cat simultaneously is and is not dead.  And so the situation should remain, until the scientists reopen the test chamber and observe its contents.

Researchers at Omni-Science originally intended to run the experiment only a dozen times, but the test results were so surprising and so confusing that additional tests were warranted.  In total, 63 cats were put through the experiment.  And to the astonishment of everyone involved, all 63 cats survived.

“We’re at a loss to explain it,” says Dr. D.C. Bakshali, principal investigator on the Schrödinger’s cat project.  “Statistically speaking, roughly half the cats should have died, and half should have survived.  But the survival rate was 100%.  We didn’t lose one cat.  Not one!”

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain these surprising results.  One possibility is being referred to as the nine lives hypothesis.  Since cats are said to have nine lives, perhaps whenever a cat dies in the test chamber it immediately resurrects itself.  Although this notion was initially suggested as a joke, one Omni-Science researcher latched onto the idea and even proposed a mechanism that may explain how unobserved cats are able to continuously revive themselves.

“Even in the 1930’s,” says Dr. Haru Hoshiko, “it was pointed out that a cat is perfectly capable of observing itself.  But has it not occurred to anyone that only living cats are able to make such observations?”

Hoshiko goes on to explain: “So long as Schrödinger’s cat remains alive, it observes itself as living.  The moment it dies, however, there is no longer an observer present.  The laws of quantum mechanics reign once more, the cesium has once again simultaneously decayed and not decayed, and thus the cat is once again simultaneously dead and alive. But the living version of the cat is capable of observing itself to be alive, causing the superposition to collapse.  Thus, Schrödinger’s cat can never die!”

According to Hoshiko, the nine lives hypothesis should more accurately be called the infinite lives hypothesis, as there is no theoretical limit to how many times a cat—or any other animal, for that matter—would be able to revive itself in this manner.  Hoshiko’s paper on the subject has been accepted for publication in Nature.

Needless to say, the results of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment have profound implications for our understanding of quantum mechanics and, indeed, the nature of reality itself.

Omni-Science, Episode One: “By Definition”

This short story was inspired by a writing prompt from Fiction Can Be Fun. Basically the prompt was to write something about the mysterious “Mondretti cylinder” pictured below.


Episode One

“By Definition”

The public relations director, Mrs. Clark, was away for the week giving the keynote at some big conference in Chicago when the “object” came into existence in laboratory #4. There would have to be an official announcement, though in a sense the object had already announced itself. The gravitational distortions had sent minor tremors up and down the East Coast. But with Mrs. Clark out of town until Monday, the problem of what to say to the media and how to say it (so as not to cause a panic) fell upon Mrs. Clark’s assistant, Nick.

To be 100% blunt, Nick Shue hated his job. He’d never wanted it in the first place. He was too into celebrity gossip and everything Hollywood for all this sciency stuff. His dream, upon graduating with his B.A. in communications, had been to move to California, maybe do P.R. work for a talent agency, or maybe even become a talent agent himself, but he would have settled for the New York scene if he’d got the chance. So when the rep from Omni-Science Laboratories offered Nick the job at their main facility in Arlington, it had been Nick’s intention to say no. He’d meant, with all his heart, to say no. But somehow over the course of a forty-minute phone conversation with a perky, young girl from human resources, a conversation in which Nick felt compelled to be very polite and very agreeable, he’d found himself accidentally agreeing to take the position. And once he’d said yes to the job, Nick didn’t feel as though he could back out of it without looking like a real fool—even more of a fool than friends, family, and the average perfect stranger already assumed him to be.

Working at Omni-Science felt like the reverse of high school. The nerds were the popular ones here, while people like Nick sat by themselves in the farthest corner of the company cafeteria. But after almost a year in Arlington, Nick had seen a lot and heard a lot, and he’d developed something of a pet theory about how science really worked: at least half of science was just very smart people quibbling over what stuff was called. The scientists Nick worked with insisted this wasn’t true. A few of them also informed Nick, without any apparent irony, that he should really call his “theory” a hypothesis, seeing as he hadn’t performed any studies to support his claim.

Anyway, with Mrs. Clark out of town, it was Nick who ended up standing there in lab #4 listening to two of the most brilliant women in the world arguing over—what else?—what their enigmatic creation should be called.

“Look at the rotation! Look at the gravitational flux!” Dr. Hoshiko was saying.

“I am looking,” said Dr. Bakshali, “but I do not see this the way you see it. Go back to your initial parameters.”

But Dr. Hoshiko was flipping forward to another chart on her computer. “No, no! There can’t be any doubt, see? This thing extends both forwards and backwards in time!”

“Yes, but not in such a way as to violate causality. A Mondretti cylinder must, by definition, be the cause of its own existence. And the experimental data does not support that conclusion.”

Nick took a deep breath. Patience, he told himself. Patience is a virtue. Except the media were clamoring for answers, and Mrs. Clark had left multiple messages on Nick’s voicemail about how she wanted him to handle this.

Nick glanced up at the… whatever it was in the test chamber, the enormous thing that hung suspended midair by its own gravity/anti-gravity effects. Nick had seen the photograph which was supposed to go out with the press release, but seeing the object in person was different. It just… it looked wrong somehow. It felt wrong, just being in its presence. Nick didn’t know how to put it into words. Here was a thing that defied all easy labels that might be applied to it. Was it a cylinder? No, not in the conventional sense. Not in the sense of a cylinder as a Platonic solid, according to Dr. Hoshiko, whatever that meant. But it was round, wasn’t it? Nick blinked, and though the object looked exactly the same, it was also somehow different. It wasn’t round at all, Nick realized. It had corners. And it was moving ever so slightly. Except no, it was perfectly motionless. It appeared to be a flat, black, emptiness yet also it seemed aglow with color, to be overflowing with bright color and light. And it made a sound: a low buzzing noise, or a soft whispering… and yet the lab was dead silent. Unnervingly silent, aside from the ongoing scientific debate, of course.

Nick wasn’t a religious man (who was these days?) but even if he couldn’t bring himself to believe in any sort of god, this thing was weird enough to convince Nick it must be the Devil’s work. Nick shook his head, pinched his nose. The thing hurt his eyes. It hurt his brain.

“Ladies,” Nick finally said, “I’m sorry, but I have to write something for the press release. Can I call this thing a Monstreddi cylinder or not?”

“It’s Mondretti.”

“Not Monstreddi.”

“And no, you cannot.”

“Yes, he most certainly can!”

And the women were at it again. Nick would have to look up this Mondro-whatever thing on the Internet. He could only hope there’d be more to find than just a stub on Wikipedia.