Schrödinger’s Cat

“Schrödinger’s Cat” memes have got to be one of the most pervasive genres of science memes out there. There are so many examples of this format but they all involve the same thing: there’s a cat in a box and it’s dead and it’s alive (or we aren’t sure which).

It’s funny because this man has no idea what he put in the box, I guess.

A lot of them also involve the cats really disliking Schrödinger or escaping the box, like this one.

But where did this all come from? How did Erwin Schrödinger become associated with feline hatred and unknowable probabilities of cat murder? To figure that out, we are going to have to talk about some early 1900’s physics and delve into an argument between physics giants Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, which Schrödinger threw his hat into as well.

In the early 20th century, physics was becoming very complicated. Classical physics, like Newton’s laws of motion and the contemporary understanding of light and electricity, were proving insufficient to explain the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles and phenomenons that were starting to be explored in great detail. Instead, thinkers like Einstein and Bohr were beginning to talk about alternative models, like quantum mechanics, to explain what was going on at a subatomic level. Quantum mechanics, despite being a good model for these sorts of things, was a confusing mess for a lot of people, including physicists at the time. Between 1925 and 1927, Bohr and his student Werner Heisenburg developed guidelines and principles for understanding and applying quantum mechanics so that it could be clearly understood by the wider physics community. These came to be known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics since they were developed at the Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University (1).

One of the things that came out of this interpretation was the idea of “superposition” where a system exists in all possible states at the same time until it is observed. Upon observation the system collapses into just one possible state (2). This was all well and good for subatomic particles and helped to explain a lot of weirdness that happens at that level, but it had surprising implications on the nature of reality. If atoms (the basis of matter) exist in all possible states until observed, does visible matter do this as well? Is there indeed only one physical reality or do we all create our own personal one when observing and measuring whatever we are looking at?

Einstein hated this implication and published an article (now called the EPR article for its authors Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen) attempting to show through thought experiment and arguments that the Copenhagen interpretation was incomplete and this whole business of superposition didn’t make any sense (3). After the article was published, Einstein and Schrödinger exchanged letters about it, both agreeing that the Copenhagen interpretation was ridiculous.

To illustrate that point, Schrödinger proposed his now infamous “cat in a box” thought experiment (4). He imagined a cat in a sealed metal box containing a vial of poison, a radioactive element, and a Geiger counter. If the Geiger counter detected radioactive decay, it would trigger a mechanism (5) and smash the vial of poison, killing the cat. Otherwise, nothing would happen. According to the Copenhagen interpretation and superposition, the radioactive element would be in a state of both decaying and not decaying (since nothing was observing it), meaning the Geiger counter should both detect and not detect decay and therefore break and not break the vial. This leads to an absurd situation where the cat dies and also doesn’t. This state of being dead but also not dead persists until someone opens the box to look and the superposition collapses one way or the other.

He argued that such a situation was incredibly foolish and didn’t make any sense, therefore the Copenhagen interpretation must be flawed. It was his way of illustrating the paradox between understanding atoms as a superposition of all possible states and understanding cats (or other collections of atoms) as having one consistent, observable state. It also posed the questions of how long superposition lasts and what can collapse it.

Somehow, that thought experiment and its associated argument morphed into an inability to understand cats in boxes, cats having some sort of ancestral hatred of Schrödinger, and all sorts of other unrelated themes. It is especially bizarre considering that the thought experiment was barely mentioned by the physics community during his lifetime (6). It only became know when physicist Eugene Wigner wrote about it (and his own continuation of the thought experiment) in 1963, which gave it enough attention to be referenced in a book by philosopher Hilary Putnam. The review of that book in Scientific American launched it into the public eye in 1965, thirty years after Schrödinger had proposed it. From there, it apparently sparked a lot of ideas in the science fiction community. Perhaps this roundabout trip into the public imagination explains why everyone knows about the cat and the box, but not the reason it exists in the first place.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_interpretation

2: This is generally what people mean when they say “collapse the wave function” as quantum mechanics views systems in terms of mathematical waves.

3: Einstein, A.; Podolsky, B.; Rosen, N. (15 May 1935). “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”. Physical Review. 47 (10): 777–780.

4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat

5: He specifies that the mechanism should be “must be secured against direct interference by the cat” because he didn’t trust an imaginary cat not to screw up his thought experiment.

6: PBS NOVA. “Schrödinger’s Cat Lives On (Or Not) at the Age of 80” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/schrodingers-cat-lives-on-or-not-at-the-age-of-80/

“Laughs Microscopically”

Today, we are going to tackle a very pervasive meme that comes in many, many forms. Let’s focus on the original for the moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this meme is actually pretty funny (I’m a big fan of the “descriptive noise” genre). The problem I have with it is that it implies that this very scary boi is some sort of germ, a bacteria or virus.

In fact, its not either of those things. It’s not even really microscopic either. A reverse image search turns up the above photo on science photo library claiming that it is a deep ocean scale worm (or polynoid scale worm [1] if you like more jargon in your life). A quick search of “deep ocean scale worm” turns up a couple of blogs featuring very similar pictures to the one in the meme of the mildly terrifying mouth parts of the scale worm family. These beasties belong to a class of worms called “polychaetes” that can range from a few millimeters to 10 meters long [2].

But then, if it isn’t a microscopic organism, why does the picture look so much like something taken with the aide of a microscope? Well, because it was. The “SEM” in the image title, if you don’t know, stands for scanning electron microscope, a method of microscopy where you don’t actually look directly at the thing you are imaging. Instead, the ‘scope fires a beam of electrons at a sample (from an ‘electron gun’, which is my new favorite part of a microscope) and then measures how the electrons scatter when they hit the sample to determine what the outside shape looks like. Hence why the pictures look like someone 3D modeled them; the position and intensity of the scattered electrons is used to make a new image [3]. Even though the worm isn’t microscopic, a lot of them are very small, so something like SEM is necessary to get the very high resolution pictures of their teeny tiny mouths I keep showing.

I’ve got one more thing to say before I go and this is actually one of the reasons I chose this meme this week. I found the below picture on r/vaxxhappened:

Again, implying this is some kind of bacteria, virus, or other disease causing agent and not a macroscopic (see-able) worm that lives around thermal vents in the deep ocean [1]. It seems ironic to me to try and skewer someone who doesn’t trust or maybe even understand the science behind vaccines with a meme that reflects a misunderstanding of the science of taxonomy.

I get it, though, a bacterium or a virus would make a much worse picture; they certainly don’t have mouths that look like they are laughing evilly. But in the infinite constellation of memes and images, surely there is a better way to make your point while still being reasonably scientifically accurate. Do I think this meme is driving the anti-vaxx movement? Absolutely not. But, do I think a better popular understanding of science (including memes) would help to combat it? Yeah, I think so.

1: Zhang et al. 2017. Adaptation and evolution of deep-sea scale worms (Annelida: Polynoidae): insights from transcriptome comparison with a shallow-water species.

2: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/14-fun-facts-about-marine-bristle-worms-180955773/

3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scanning_electron_microscope#Scanning_process_and_image_formation (Yes, yes, I know. You’re not supposed to cite wikipedia, but I find it very helpful for learning about very technical stuff; there aren’t a lot of primary papers describing how SEM works, for instance.)



3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scanning_electron_microscope#Scanning_process_and_image_formation (Yes, yes, I know. You’re not supposed to cite wikipedia, but I find it very helpful for learning about very technical stuff; there aren’t a lot of primary papers describing how SEM works, for instance.)

“Is this what happiness looks like?”

Maybe you’ve seen this video, or a still image from it, or the gif version floating around the internet?

The caption on this particular video claims that “this is what a myosin protein dragging an endorphin along a filament to the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex to create happiness looks like! And if you listen really, really closely… it sounds like this too”.

Obviously, that last bit is a joke; no one is really claiming that cells are filled with the dulcet tones of The Proclaimers (that would make bursting them open in the lab a really weird time for me), but the first bit I’ve seen repeated all over the place. And while its not entirely wrong, it definitely mangles a few things. I’m going to get a little nitpick out of the way first. This isn’t a live video of a real protein doing anything; its a computer generated model of what scientists think is going on in there based on different studies and techniques. No one put a tiny camera in the cell and hit ‘record’.

With that out of the way, I think the strangest part of the whole thing is that it implies there’s one, uninterrupted filament running from wherever it is now into the deep recesses of the parietal cortex (which handles reading, math and spatial awareness, by the way, not emotions [1]) and this friendo is going to walk its cargo all the way there. In reality, there are multitudes of tiny little filaments like this one crossing to and fro all over every cell in your body, and little biological machines, called proteins, do haul cargo up and down them to ensure different parts of the cell have what they need to function, not unlike a system of road ways and delivery trucks. But, no filaments for transport extend outside of the cell and no proteins are walking between cells. Cells utilize a number of different transport methods to get stuff from cell to cell and we don’t really need to worry about most of them here.

Instead, let’s give this video the benefit of the doubt for the moment and assume its inside a nerve cell since they mention endorphins and the brain. In that case, they could be correct that this protein is myosin, one of the proteins that carry cargo in a cell. Myosin is found on filaments called actin, which are abundant in the part of nerve cells that need to have endorphins and other neurotransmitters brought to them, such as the parts that border the gap between nerve cells, called the synapse [2]. At the synapse, myosin would hand off its cargo to other proteins that control the movement of neurotransmitters from one cell to another. But what exactly is it handing off? That big blobbly thing in the video isn’t an endorphin, it’s a big bag of proteins called a vesicle. It might contain endorphins or some other neurotransmitter, or something else entirely if this wasn’t a nerve cell; hard to know from the video.

So, its not going to the right place, doesn’t use filament all the way, and isn’t quite carrying one endorphin, but that could still be part of what happiness looks like, right? It could be moving some endorphins to get to the synapse? Well, I guess. But even then, it would only be the set up. If we really want to talk about what happiness ‘looks like’ on the molecular level, it really looks like neurotransmitters moving from neuron to neuron over the synapse, and causing a cascade of signals down along chain of neurons, some signals being chemical (neurotransmitters) and some being electrical. So this video would be more akin to loading the “happiness gun”, getting ready to start the signal cascade. No one has been shot through the heart with emotion yet.

Last thing before I go. While looking into this, I found that the source of this clip was actually a demo for the full movie The Inner Life of the Cell, a really interesting computer model of all sorts of processes that go on inside cells done by some cool people at Harvard. The inspiration for the video was apparently a white blood cell, not a nerve cell, so its unclear what the cargo shown is. The protein, according to the creators, is dynein, another motor protein in the cell that uses different roads, called microtubules to get around the cell. It doesn’t quite walk like that, it has a bit more of a stutter as the big head domains of the protein try to find the road, but it does strut around hauling things all day. Which I think is pretty commendable. Go little motor protein, go.

References:

1: Whitlock JR. 2017. Posterior parietal cortex

2: Hirokawa N, Niwa S, Tanaka Y. 2010. Molecular Motors in Neurons: Transport Mechanisms and Roles in Brain Function, Development, and Disease