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          Scientists Are Dead Set on Proving Schrödinger’s Cat in Real Life

          But don't worry—they're not going to harm any cats.

          cat in a box
          Steven Coutts Photography

            For the first time, scientists believe they might be able to show that Schrödinger's cat could exist in real life—not just in thought experiments. With larger and larger quantum objects, they say, a superpositioned cat seems inevitable. In the meantime, the scientists only have to figure out what’s preventing superpositioning at all in the largest quantum objects.

            🤯 You like badass physics. So do we. Let's nerd out together.

            This one gets a little wavy gravy, so let’s first go over what Schrödinger’s cat even is. It’s a thought experiment, or what cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett might call an intuition pump, that leads people to a new understanding of quantum mechanics. First, you put a hypothetical cat in a box. Then you basically flip a coin, and either the cat is killed or not killed inside the box.

            The box remains closed and opaque the entire time, and there are no weasely workarounds like listening to the cat or seeing the box move. Is the cat alive or not? Since there’s no possible way to tell, the cat is effectively both alive and dead. Like a quantum particle, it’s superpositioned in two states at once.

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            From this description, you can see why the idea of a “real” Schrödinger’s cat is so stupefying. If a complex mammal could experience superpositioning, that would unlock far-out ideas like teleportation.

            “In the past two decades or so, physicists have created quantum states in objects made of trillions of atoms—large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Although, this has not yet included spatial superposition,” researcher Stefan Forstner explains.

            Forstner’s team has designed an experiment that could someday prove large objects and even living things can be superpositioned. In a way, it’s a continuation of the original thought experiment, because we can’t do this experiment today. But the team has at least turned pure philosophy into something with parameters and procedures.

            🐈 The Best Vacuums for Cleaning Up Cat Hair

            First, they’d freeze all the parts and contents of a hypothetical refrigerator to as close to zero Kelvin as possible, including the key mechanism, the resonator. Then they’d see if this sealed, zero-cold system allowed for outside interference of the type that historically has flattened wave functions into one state instead of two or more—an observer effect that has defined the question of Schrödinger’s’s cat and quantum superpositioning.

            “Single particles of light would enter the resonator and bounce back and forth a few million times, absorbing any excess energy,” the researchers explain:

            “They would eventually leave the resonator, carrying the excess energy away. By measuring the energy of the light particles coming out, we could determine if there was heat in the resonator. If heat was present, this would indicate an unknown source (which we didn’t control for) had disturbed the wave function. And this would mean it’s impossible for superposition to happen at a large scale.”

            So when all other explanations have been superfrozen out of the situation, what remains—that heat is still exhibited, or it isn’t—is the most likely explanation. From there, researchers can move on to real cats or new thought experiments.

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