We are living in a very exciting time right now. The ingenuity of our human minds has continued to propel us deeper into the understanding of ourselves and our world, helping us to learn more and more about less and less.
In the quantum field, for instance, physicists are now able to examine the nature of microscopic particles that make up the matter in our universe and look ever more closely into how they interact in our physical environment.
Nevertheless, unless you are an expert, quantum theories and their mathematical calculations are so alien to us that they might as well have been something created by beings from outer space.
For us ordinary people, the closest thing we might ever know about them is perhaps a cool spinoff joke about a famous imaginary feline known as Schrodinger's cat. Occasionally, it jumps at us when we least expect it, on a friend's mug with "Wanted Dead and Alive: Schrodinger's Cat" or on the T-shirt of a passersby saying "Schrodinger's cat found alive!"
In the 1930s, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger asked what it would be like if our everyday lives mirrored the same mysterious, paradoxical phenomena that actually happen at the atomic level, where things can exist in two different states at the same time.
To this end, he asked us to imagine a sleeping cat inside a sealed steel box that contained a deadly mechanism. Somewhere within an hour's time, the mechanism would flip a coin, and if it landed heads, poison would be released into the box, silently killing the cat. If the coin landed tails, the mechanism would do nothing, and the cat would live. To someone returning to the box after an hour's time, the cat effectively exists in a 50/50 "superposition" combining the two states – both alive and dead at the same time until it is observed, as one or the other.
To you or me, living in the everyday world, this may seem ridiculous – the cat should obviously be one or the other, but that is not how things actually act in the unseen and quite real quantum world that underlies the universe. The physics is rather complicated to explain, but the "cat" (a metaphor for the spooky way all of reality actually works) is truly both dead and alive until the box is opened and one of the two possibilities is revealed.
It is mind-boggling because our logic cannot explain how any creature could be alive and dead at the same time, even a cat with nine lives. And yet, under the condition specified by Schrodinger, it is totally plausible.
As humans, the fragility of life makes us feel forever vulnerable. Every living being comes to this world through birth and always leaves through death. We have been obsessed by the subject of eternal life since the beginning of time, which may explain why Schrodinger's cat (the theory, anyway) is still alive, thriving even outside the field of physics some 80 years after its birth.
In some ways, this magical cat is not just the subject of an imaginary experiment. It represents a unique perspective on life and death, inspiring us to explore the possibility of their coexistence. If indeed, death concurs with life, then our existence may extend beyond life.
It suddenly occurred to me that some of our fellow beings may be already living in the state of Schrodinger's cat – alive and yet not alive at the same time. Think about Alex Trebek hosting new episodes of Jeopardy long after he succumbed to cancer; how our dearest departed family members and friends appear to us and live on in our memories, continuing to guide us with their wisdom and example in moments of doubt; or Frederic Chopin's piano concertos being played again and again long after he himself was gone.
Thanks to Schrodinger, maybe we have already found everlasting life on Earth. Our life beyond life. Whether we want it or not, maybe we have already gained more than nine lives.
Reflections From The East Column:
By Qin Sun Stubis