LOST: Schroedinger's CastawaysThe following post uses LOST as a jumping off point, but may be interesting to those who don't follow the show as well. I'll eventually write this in an entirely non-LOST version, but for now you'll have to bear with me...
The Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment in quantum physics goes like this:
You have a lead box. Into this box, you place a cat, a Geiger counter, a cyanide cannister and the radioactive nucleus of an atomic isotope. The Geiger counter is connected to the cyanide so that, when the radioactive material decays and emits a particle, it triggers the release of the cyanide and kills the cat. There's a 50 percent chance the particle will be emitted in a given time frame, usually stated as an hour for the sake of discussion.
The emission of the particle is governed by the laws of quantum physics, which state that until the particle is observed, it exists only as a "superposition of probabilities." In other words, there is a 50 percent chance the cat is dead after the time limit has been reached, but that chance doesn't become real until an observation is made.
The question -- which has caused many a headache over the years -- becomes this: If you don't open the box after an hour, is the cat dead or alive? The correct answer is that until you open the box and look, the cat is neither dead nor alive, but exists in a sort of split-simultaneous reality in which both possible outcomes are present. Sometimes this is called a "cloud of possibilities" that only coalesces into reality when an observation is made, which is an adequate way to think about it for purposes of this discussion.
When the castaways on LOST opened "the hatch" at the end of Season One, I speculated that the hatch might have been like Schroedinger's lead box -- the contents of the hatch didn't exist until the hatch was opened and the castaways looked inside. After this week's episode -- titled "?" -- I'm toying with another idea.
In "?" we learned that another hatch, called the "Pearl Station," was tasked with monitoring Dharma Initiative experiements including the "Swan Station," where our heroes have set up camp and obligingly pressed the mysterious button every 108 minutes. An "Orientation" video for the Pearl Station explained that the function of the Pearl hatch was to observe the other hatches, record the results of the Dharma Industries psychological experiments taking place within, and send the results via pneumatic tube to a still-unknown location.
This raised several questions in my mind. What if the Island -- and its hatches -- are actually a series of Schroedinger boxes, one inside the other, with the castaways trapped inside? What strangeness would ensue?
The Pearl Station was an observation station. But there is no one left there to observe. Did the Pearl Station observers cause the reality of the Dharma experiments on the Island and in the hatches to coalesce from a cloud of superimposed probabilities into a single reality?
And when the Pearl Station was abandoned, did it cause solid reality to remained melted in a morass of probabilities? Remember that Henry Gale told Locke that "even God can't see what happens" on the Island.
Could this explain the bizarre and seemingly impossible phenomena encountered by the castaways -- such as Jack's father Christian being both dead and alive simultaneously? (That crazy cat!)
But we can get weirder still. The Pearl Station was there to observe the other experiments. But as we saw in "?", there was also a camera mounted in the Pearl Station -- which means the station was itself being observed by someone else.
Let's start with one (relatively) simple variation of the Schroedinger's Cat puzzle and work our way up.
What if the only observers in the experiment are inside Schroedinger's box -- and the entire universe outside the box is undetermined until observed?
What if there are multiple boxes outside the first box? Or even infinite boxes, each ready to spring into existence when the one before it is opened?
We're inverting Schroedinger's cat here. Inside the box, we place an observer. Let's call him John Locke. We seal John in the lead box (with some suitable contrivance allowing him to survive).
Then, outside the lead box, we put Schroedinger's poor abused cat and the attendant apparatus. Until Locke leaves the box, the cat is neither alive nor dead.
This sets up an intriguing hypothesis in which the castaways are a group of observers who have been locked "inside" a Schroedinger box. When they opened the hatch, they weren't going "inside" the hatch, they were going "outside" the Island. By observing the hatch, the Dharma Initiative coalesced into a reality, leading to more developments and artifacts. What if there is no world beyond the Island -- at least, not until our castaways go "outside" to see it?
But we can get weirder still. Let's call this next experiment Berger's Diminishing Cat.
You have the typical Schroedinger setup with the lead box as outlined at the beginning of this article. But then you take that lead box, and you put it inside another lead box. In the second box, the outer box, there is also a Geiger counter and a radioactive particle.
This Geiger counter is wired to an impenetrable padlock on the first box. If a radioactive particle is emitted, the padlock opens. If not, it remains locked. We then seal the outer box.
An hour passes. There is now a 50 percent possibility that the outer box Geiger counter has unlocked the second box. If the second box has not been unlocked, then no observation is possible and the cat must remain trapped in a "cloud of possibilities."
But until you open the outer box, the question of whether or not the cat's plight can coalesce into an outcome from a cloud of possibilities is itself only a cloud of possibilities. So not only is the cat neither alive nor dead, but it is also simultaneously possible and impossible to determine whether the cat is alive or dead.
The cat's fate is now twice removed from solid reality. In the normal Shroedinger's Cat experiment, the cat is rendered into a superposition of probabilities. In Berger's Cat, the first superposition of probabilities has itself become a superposition of probabilities. There is now, literally, only a ghost of a chance that the cat can manifest as either alive or dead.
With only a 50-50 chance that the cat's fate can even be determined, the cat's actual set of probabilities has now changed. In the original experiment, the superposition is binary -- the two possible outcomes that have been superimposed are 1) the cat is alive and 2) the cat is dead. In the Berger's Cat experiment, the "cloud of possibilities" inside the boxes is now trinary -- 1) the cat is alive, 2) the cat is dead, and 3) the cat is trapped in a state of superposition between alive and dead.
The original superposition itself becomes part of a bigger superposition. Could this create a sort of recursive fractal feedback loop of weirdness? (My head starts to hurt when I think about this too much, but I'll play through the pain and let you know.)
What if there was a third box? Or a fourth? Or a hundred? What if the innermost box didn't simply determine whether the cat was alive or dead, but encompassed an even broader range of possibilities?
On the broader, weirder, range, I will have more to say in "Part 2" of this essay, some time next week....
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Just finished reading "Quantum Enigma" by Rosenblum and Kuttner. Thought I might be the first to relate same to "Lost." But you are waaaay ahead of me!
Here's a question: The body of Jack's father was missing, but the body of John Lock seems coexist with the living John Lock. The rules of quantum physics must be quite different on the island. Perhaps there, observation by one does not instantaneously become reality for all. Has the same observer ever “seen” both the living and the dead John Lock? Is John the Cat?
Haha, interesting question too, considering he was in a metal box...
However, I suspect that whatever is going on with Evil Locke, it's probably simpler than this. The Smoke Monster at work....