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Google doodle honors physicist Erwin Schrodinger and his cat

August 12, 2013|By Geoffrey Mohan
  • Schrodinger's cat, the facetious thought experiment involving a cat locked in a box with a deadly device, has become a pop icon.
Schrodinger's cat, the facetious thought experiment involving… (Google )

Maybe you thought it was some indecipherable math and a cat, but today's Google doodle is a playful birthday homage to Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, a pioneer in quantum physics born on this day in 1877.

For better or worse, popular memory of Schrodinger centers on his somewhat facetious 1935 thought experiment that brought a paradox of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics into the flesh-and-blood world. In it, a cat is obscured in a box with a radioactive device that could trigger a mechanical device leading to the feline's death by poisoning.

In the quantum interpretation of reality, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead until the experimenter "knows" whether an atom inside the box has decayed - and thus emitted a particle that tripped the hammer and smashed a vial of poison. It was Schrodinger's playful jab at the prevailing interpretation of the indeterminate behavior of fundamental particles: a quantum particle exists in many possible states until the moment we observe it.

PHOTOS: Google Doodles of 2013

Schrodinger didn't give much stock to the thought experiment, proposed in 1935, but it has become a staple of physics education, en route to learning of his ground-breaking insights on wave mechanics.

Inside jokes about Schrodinger's cat are a staple in "The Big Bang Theory" television comedy series, for example. On the more indie side of the spectrum, there's an award-winning documentary on the attempts of Mark Oliver Everett, the founder of indie band Eels, to find out about his enigmatic father, Hugh Everett III, a famous quantum mechanics theorist who "resolved" the paradox of the Copenhagen Interpretation with a theory of parallel universes.

Everett still has his adherents, and physicists still debate over the fundamental underpinning of the cat experiment. A lot more than a cat's life depends on the argument.

If you don't believe it, just Google it. (Until then, you simultaneously understand it and don't understand it.)

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