THE TEXT

The Life of Henry Fuckit
(1950 - 2015)

 

66   Quantum mechanics + dead cat = big thrill

The trapdoor was raised and Ivan Schroder led the way down the granite steps into the darkness. He had gathered up the tail of his academic gown so as not to trip and fall headlong. Henry followed, curios but also somewhat apprehensive. It didn't bother him that this man might have lost hold of reality - the more unusual the situation the better he liked it - rather, he worried that he might be drawn into something which required commitment, reliability and, worst of all, consistent application. Well, there was absolutely no way he was prepared to put up with such expectations or demands. He had made this quite plain to both Bergson and Schroder.

After some fifteen steps there was a short landing and another flight continued at right angles to the first. He realised they were descending in a corner, hugging one wall and then another. As he neared the bottom the trapdoor thudded shut above him. In the gloom he stumbled into Schroder who was waiting to guide him across the floor of what appeared to be a great cavernous vault. High above him he could just make out the ribs and arches of the ceiling, and somewhere ahead there was a feeble yellow glow. The air was cold and damp and smelt of brine and something else which he couldn't place. He heard the suck and gurgle of water close by.

"Watch your step here, Mr Fuckit. Don't want to go falling in. Break a leg at low tide. And the ramp's thick with green slime - impossibly slippery."

He was grasping Henry's elbow and shepherding him towards the light. There was a sudden movement in the shadows and a dark shape darted away. Another one. And another.

"Rats! Fuckin' big rats!" exclaimed Henry, and laughed in fright.

"Cats. Not rats, cats," Schroder corrected him.

They passed under an electric light and then, ten paces further on, came to a door set in brickwork. They had crossed diagonally beneath the floor of the Carpenter Shop. As Schroder inserted a key Henry felt a cat brushing up against his leg and he let out a shout and kicked wildly.

"Hey, voertsek! Voertsek! Bloody thing." Now he knew what that other smell was. The sharp sour stink of cats. Schroder had opened the door and operated a light switch. A fluorescent tube flashed, flickered and then lit the interior with steady white incandescence. It was a large rectangular room. At one end was a desk and chair, filing cabinet, bookshelves. The office. And a comfortable-looking easy chair. The other end was the laboratory. A sink with running water flanked by a fridge and a chest freezer. A long work surface against one wall. Various items of electronic equipment, and above them a cabinet emblazoned with black skull and crossbones. DANGER/GEVAAR POISON/GIF offered an unambiguous warning to the literate. There was also a strong brass padlock for the illiterate. Above the sink were two clocks side by side. They showed different times and Henry noted with surprise that the second hand of one of them was moving anti-clockwise. Forming an island in the middle of the floor and dominating that end of the room was a low stand upon which rested a grey box. About a metre by a metre by a metre in dimension, its sliding lid was drawn to one side. Cables led to the electronic devices.

Henry wondered over to the box and tapped its side.

"Lead?" He looked in. Beneath the outer lid there was a glass screen. He recoiled, startled by what he saw. "Shit man, there's a cat in here! Dead!"

"Ah, yes. That was Growltiger." He joined Henry at the open container. "The luckiest cat I've ever had. Couldn't last forever though…" There was a catch in his voice and he took out a handkerchief and blew his nose noisily. Henry moved to the other side of the casket.

"How did it die?" he asked in a mock-hushed voice. "The cause of death - not too violent I hope."

"No, no. Cyanide. Can't you smell it? No, quick as a flash. It's quite uncanny, you know; this is the twenty-seventh time I've used him and he went at twenty-seven past nine yesterday morning."

"Pity yesterday wasn't the twenty-seventh. But what's a dead cat doing in a lead box anyway? I mean, is it lying in state, or something? Are you paying your last respects?"

"The deceased animals are normally disposed of immediately, but unfortunately Lobengula's been off sick the past few days."

Henry raised his eyebrows. "Lobengula?"

"My factotum down here. An invaluable black gentleman. Does just about everything - cleaner, teaboy, veterinary aide, mortician, laboratory assistant, timekeeper. Hope he recovers."

"What's wrong with the bugger? Physical exhaustion?" Henry knew well the importance of such minions.

"Could be cyanide poisoning or radiation sickness. I keep telling him to take more care when disposing of the carcasses." Schroder pushed the sliding lid shut and then walked over to his desk. "Come and make yourself comfortable and I'll begin to fill in the background to my research work. You'll find that chair to your liking, I'm sure."

For an ergophobic person like Henry, who preferred to spend much of the working day reading and in contemplation, this was an ergonomically efficient chair indeed. Not too soft, not too firm, it was pleasantly recumbent yet provided lumbar support just where it was needed. A fine chair.

"So you're going to explain to me," he said, after taking a nip of Old Brown Brandy from his water bottle, "how you intend explaining the inexplicable."

Schroder sat with his elbows on the arms of his chair and rested the extended fingertips of one hand against those of the other, forming a kind of digital pyramid. Big hands, long fingers. Henry glanced at the man's shoes beneath the desk. Big feet too. He wondered if there were any reliable statistics to support the 'big hands-big feet-big dick' theory. Made sense, if all the extremities were in proportion. He looked at his own hands and his sandalled feet. The train of thought caused an involuntary thrill to course through his body from head to toe and, before he could prevent himself, he was back in the storeroom with its pantry smells, and the slow in-out was too delicious to bear. Then shame and guilt jumped to his rescue and the memory was chased into a dark recess. Schroder was already explaining.

"…and so I thought I would start by giving you an introduction to quantum theory, assuming you know next to nothing about the subject."

Henry sat back and listened without interrupting. The dissertation was well reasoned and clear, without too much technical jargon and certainly without the employment of mathematical equations. The man had a good grasp of the subject and Henry began to feel he was in safe hands. He was about to be introduced to something completely novel, something exiting, he hoped.

After nearly an hour the lucid and well measured exposition drew to a close.

"Alright, so what you're saying is this." And Henry began a recapitulation of Schroder's version of quantum theory. "Quantum mechanics is useful in successfully describing and predicting the behaviour of subatomic particles. And by 'subatomic particles' we mean particles which purport to be the subordinate ingredients which go to make up the atom. But, because an entity such as an electron might sometimes behave like a wave, and at other times like a particle, depending on the experimental conditions and the day of the week, we find ourselves filled with a dreadful feeling of uncertainty, wondering what the fuck an electron really is. To avoid this horrible uncertainty, you say, we should refrain from looking for any kind of underlying reality or ultimate explanation. Instead, you insist, we must accept the only reality which is available - the result obtained by making an observation. Different types of observation will produce different types of result. Evidence from different observations may not be amenable to being presented in a single model and therefore different pieces of evidence can give rise to complementary conclusions. Now, if we accept what you're asserting, we find ourselves facing an alarming consequence: our knowledge of the universe can never be absolute. It always depends on probabilities." Henry paused. "Is this an accurate summary of what you've just been telling me? Do you think I've got the gist of it, Professor?"

Ivan Schroder was impressed. He could hardly put it more succinctly himself. This fellow's rough exterior was remarkably deceptive. Bergson had promised him hidden gold and now he was beginning to think it might well exist.

"It's most gratifying to encounter a nimble mind." He felt there could be no harm in some honest flattery; Henry didn't look the type to place any store in the opinions of others, be they admiring or scornful. "Most people wouldn't have the faintest notion of what it means, let alone see the far reaching implications, when we declare that our universe can never be absolute." He leaned forward, looked Henry in the eye and spoke with fierce conviction. "Science is no better than superstition or magic. And not much better than religion."

"Ah, a man after my own heart. You know, I've just re-read 'The Origin of Species', and I've found it about as persuasive as the book of Genesis. Just another crackpot theory. Just another pathetically desperate attempt to impose order on chaos. Why can't we accept the obvious: we don't know who we are, where we come from, or where we're going. All is obscure." And so saying, he uncorked his waterbottle and took a hefty swig.

Schroder rose, paced up and down a few times, took a peek at the dead cat, closed the lid, and came and sat down again. He's marshalling his thoughts, Henry told himself. Probably going to unload one helluva profound piece of wisdom. Wonder where I fit into all of this? Hmmm, is that faint, noisome odour my feet, my groin, or decomposing cat?

"You must be wondering and wondering what's the connection between cats and quantum theory, and how you fit into all of this. Well, I'm going to tell you."

"Very good of you. Most considerate. Please proceed, I'm all agog, as one of my uncles used to say. The Latin scholar, poet and mystic; would have found this most interesting, being a cat-fancier himself; used to recite from Possum's Book of Practical Pussies. A bit trivial if you ask me. But I'm digressing and preventing you from leading me from darkness into light. Please go ahead."

"This started out as a rather frivolous exercise when Harry Bergson and I realised there was a fundamental philosophical problem in quantum measurement. We began with the premise that an elementary particle does not exist in particle form, as opposed to wave form, until it has been observed. Prior to being observed it has a potential existence which we described by means of an ingenious mathematical equation. This potential for existence we called the wavefunction, which gives the probability of finding the particle at a particular point in space at a particular moment in time. Only when the observation is actually made do the properties of the entity become known and the entity can be said to exist. Upon observation the wavefunction collapses into nothing, the wave is gone and we have a particle. But, and here we encounter a truly monumental BUT, at what instant does the wavefunction collapse? At what split second does it occur?"

"Shite man, that's a difficult one. I'm beginning to get an inkling of the problem." Henry was nodding his head thoughtfully. "How does one go about pinpointing that teeny-weeny moment in eternity?"

Schroder was happy to describe the brilliant way he had tackled the problem.

"I tried to keep everything as simple as possible. This is basically all there is to it," and he gestured to the other end of the room. "A box, a piece of radioactive material, a Geiger counter, and a cat. Oh, and a vial of cyanide. Now, according to quantum theory, nobody can predict exactly when a radioactive material will emit a particle. However, it is known how many particles will be emitted, on average, over a specific period of time. The Geiger counter is connected to a device which breaks the vial of cyanide if a particle is detected, and this kills the cat. Do you follow?"

"Yes, I get the picture. Just as an aside, though, is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals aware of these experiments?" Henry knew the answer but wanted to gauge the man by his response.

"No, of course they're not aware. I'm sure they'd have me in court in no time at all if they did get to hear of what I'm up to." He appeared quite unafraid of the SPCA and showed no signs of conscience grappling. "No. But remember, death is instantaneous and painless. And on top of it I give them a fifty-fifty chance of surviving each time they go into the box. The experiment is run for a period that gives the cat a fifty percent chance against the statistical average relating to particle emission."

Henry was beginning to look puzzled. "Now hold it right there, Mr Schroder." He got to his feet, did two squats, then three toe-touches, to loosen up after his stint in the comfortable chair, flexed his biceps, tucked in his shirt and surreptitiously adjusted himself, and then sat down again. "What I fail to see is the necessity for cyanide and a cat. Surely just the Geiger counter would suffice in detecting particle emission?"

"Not so fast. I'm just at the point where that kind of question will become redundant. I was about to put a question to you which will enable you to penetrate the logic of this whole exercise."

He pulled in his chair and leaned forward towards Henry, his face serious, his eyes intense. Henry assumed an attentive air, appropriate for the occasion.

"Let us assume, Mr Fuckit, that the radioactive material has emitted a particle and the cyanide has been released. We open up the box and look in. The unfortunate feline is dead. Right?"

"Right. Stone dead."

"Now. WHEN DID IT DIE?" He said it slowly and in capital letters.

"When? Well… Jesus, is this a trick question or something? When the radioactive source caused the cyanide to be released - that's when the fucking thing died."

"Ah, but that's where you're wrong." Schroder sat back, a triumphant tone in his voice, a smug look replacing the grave one on his face.

"Wrong? Wrong? What do you mean WRONG?" Henry was irritated.

"You see, the cat, the cyanide, the Geiger counter and the radioactive source are all part of the same system. This system has its own wavefunction which collapses only when the observation is made. Only when we look into the box are we able to say with conviction, Now the cat is dead. Before that moment it was only a probability."

"Fuck me." Henry sat shaking his head in disbelief. "So this is where we are in our quest for knowledge. This is at the forefront of scientific endeavour." For several moments he sat staring at the Chief Verification Officer before asking, "So what do you want me to do?"

"Mr Fuckit, it will be your task, your privilege, to observe me making the observation."

Despair settled slowly upon Henry and his shoulders slumped. He lay back in the comfortable chair, poured the rest of his Old Brown Brandy down his throat, and half listened to Schroder's enthusiastic drivel. He nodded his head occasionally but his eyes were dull and listless.

To be wiped out by a collapsing wavefunction was so intensely exhilarating it could not fail to engender instant addiction. This was what Schroder was communicating. A simple experiment to investigate a scientifico-philosophical problem had led to a startling discovery. Collapsing wavefunctions could be experienced as a powerful but largely indescribable sensation. On opening the box and observing the dead cat some kind of energy flow took place. This energy flow produced an intense feeling of euphoria and a conviction that THIS was the missing key. THIS would lead to a higher level of understanding and awareness. And to further enhance the flow of energy Schroder intended to extend the system: having himself observed whilst making his observation would increase the force with which the wavefunction collapsed. Henry would be helping to explore a new realm, hitherto uncharted by the human mind or spirit. Hoorah! Hoorah! Schroder's face shone with excitement and his large teeth gleamed and flashed with pioneering whiteness. But Henry was breaking up.

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