Schrödinger’s Cat and Other Thought Experiments
2021 Treinen Farm Corn Maze
The story behind the maze
Schrödinger’s Cat and Other Thought Experiments Corn Maze
This year’s maze may take a little more explanation, but it’s worth it!
TL;DR — The maze is an adorable cat sitting in a box, as cats often do. Surrounding the cat are the mysteries of human identity, ethics, calculus, the quantum world, and string theory.
Read on for the details, or show up at the farm and we’ll walk you through them…
The Thought Experiments
Schrödinger’s Cat is a little complicated, so let’s start with the thought experiments. Thought experiments are a way of using your imagination to understand and discuss a complicated idea. We’ve incorporated some of the most famous thought experiments into the maze design this year.
Ship of Theseus
This is a classic philosophy thought experiment, and it goes like this: Theseus was one of the most famous and beloved of all the Greek heroes (he slayed the Minotaur!!!) and so when he gave his ship to the city of Athens, they cherished it for generations. It was a great source of pride for them, and so they took excellent care of it. It was entirely made of wood, so if any piece of it rotted, they crafted a perfect replacement for it. With such great care, the ship lasted for many generations—but ultimately, they had replaced every part of the ship with an exact duplicate, and no parts from the original ship remained.
Here’s the thought experiment part: is it still Theseus’s ship? (And if it is a new ship, at what point does it become new ship? What if all the old parts were carefully stored, and then one day they were reassembled? Or what if instead of wood, the Athenians replaced each part with a metal part—would the metal ship be the same ship? Does the material matter, or how many parts have been replaced, or over what time period the replacement happens?)
Here’s more explanation and thought-provoking discussion about the Ship of Theseus: https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/this-ancient-thought-exercise-will-have-you-questioning-your-identity
See videos below, and check out the Star Trek Transporter Problem, which is similar to the Ship of Theseus.
The Trolley Problem
Imagine you are standing next to where the trolley track splits into two, and you can reach the switch that will make the trolley go on one track or the other. The trolley is coming, fast, and will shortly run over and kill five people who are tied up and laying on the tracks. If you pull the switch and cause the trolley to go onto the other track, you will save those five people—but the trolley will still kill one person who is tied to that track.
Do you pull the switch and kill that one person but save the five? Or do you just let the trolley stay on the same track and not take responsibility? What if that one person is your child or your parent?
The Trolley Problem starts a discussion of ethics. Here’s an good resource to digging a little deeper: https://theconversation.com/the-trolley-dilemma-would-you-kill-one-person-to-save-five-57111
But for maximum fun, explore some of the endless Trolley Problem memes. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/08/trolley-problem-meme-tumblr-philosophy.html
Also check out the videos below.
Zeno’s Arrow Paradox
This is a version of a math/physics thought experiment. Imagine someone shoots an arrow at you. Will the arrow reach you?
It sounds like a dumb question, but if you think about it, first the arrow has to get halfway to you, right? Okay, so if you were twenty feet away, now the arrow is ten feet away. Cool. Now the arrow has to get halfway to you again, so it’s now five feet away. And then halfway again: two and a half feet. In this paradox, the arrow is always half way across the remaining distance and will never get to you. (The mathematicians will at this point start to discuss calculus and limits, while the physicists—and doctors—will be applying pressure to your arrow wound.)
Schrödinger’s Famous Cat
And so we get to the notoriously both-dead-and-alive cat, a thought experiment that harms no actual animals, and was actually posed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to illustrate how ridiculous he considerd this interpretation of quantum mechanics to be.
Here’s your basic Wikipedia summary of the situation:
Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor (e.g. Geiger counter) detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality resolves into one possibility or the other. —WIKIPEDIA
Here’s another way to look at the thought experiment:
Quantum mechanics—the study of atoms and even smaller particles, like quarks, gluons, and more—is super weird. It turns out that things at such a tiny scale simply don’t work in the same way that the everyday world works. Some particles can interact at huge distances or be in more than one place at once or tunnel through things—and maybe even time-travel!
The physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, working around the time of Einstein, came up with a thought experiment involving a cat sealed in a box. The box also contains a radioactive substance that could break open a jar of poison that may or may not have killed the cat. According to one interpretation of quantum theory, the cat would be BOTH dead and alive in the box until the box was opened. The act of observing the cat would actually cause it to be EITHER dead or alive, not both. Schrödinger thought the idea was absurd—but it turns out the super-tiny particles of quantum world actually do work something like that.
This thought experiment has to do with a cat in a box, quantum superposition, wave-form collapse, the measurement problem, and the many-worlds theories.
I strongly suggest watching a few videos if you want to get up to speed. But the bottom line is that the quantum world is super-weird and cats in boxes are cute.