Quantum physics in the 1930s was more than a science. It was a revolution in philosophical thought. Suddenly, all the old absolutes were gone, replaced by a universe that operated on probabilities and uncertainties, where nothing could be known for sure, and where the very act of observing something changed it to something else.
However, hand in hand with the new willingness of scientists to embrace uncertainty, there went a political hardening, or as Bronowski pointed out, a certainty that was the sworn enemy of true knowledge. As the scientists debated the nature of the fundamental matter we’re all made of, and came to agree that not everything could be known, Nazism and Communism spread their tentacles of fear across Europe, crushing dissent and creating a religion of absolute ideological belief.
In 1935, Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (E, P & R) jointly wrote an article describing what they perceived to be a flaw in current scientific thinking. Einstein fervently wanted to understand the hidden mechanisms behind quantum physics, and the EPR article argued that there must be something missing, some hidden mechanism to explain the mysterious behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Einstein didn’t like the idea that something could be in two places at the same time, only choosing a final resting place when someone observes it. To him, that looked suspiciously like magic.
Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist, agreed and came up with an example to illustrate the point — a metaphor that has come to be known as Schrödinger’s Cat.
Suppose, he said, you have a cat in a steel box which also contains a very weak radioactive source. There’s a fifty-fifty chance that the source will release a single subatomic particle in an hour, and if it does, it triggers a mechanism that releases poison gas and kills the cat. Of course, there’s also a 50% chance that it won’t give out the single particle, and the cat survives. Therefore, for a full hour, provided this closed system is not observed by anyone, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time.
Schrödinger didn’t seriously think a thing like that could happen, but he used the example to reduce the current quantum theory to its ultimate, absurd conclusion. More work needed, was his advice.
Schrödinger, incidentally, was deeply anti-Nazi in his convictions, and left Germany in 1933, with his wife and his girlfriend (!). Shortly after taking up a position in Oxford, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, the Oxford authorities took a dim view of his domestic arrangements, and so he went to Princeton, where he encountered the same problem, so he went back to Austria before finally going to Dublin in 1940 at the invitation of deValera, to set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
He was busy as always, producing a book that inspired Rosalind Franklin to decode the DNA structure, (a discovery subsequently hijacked by Crick and Watson), and also finding time to father children by two of his Irish students.
But we digress.
If Erwin Schrödinger had not died in 1961, but had somehow managed to get himself into a steel box with an extremely weak readioactive source — perhaps one particle every hundred years — he might somehow have contrived a way to observe the outside world, and he might be able to note real, tangible proof that his paradox wasn’t as silly as he thought.
After all, here we have a bank — Anglo Irish — which is both dead and alive at the same time. A bank which needs to be protected and yet simultaneously killed. I think deValera, a man with a strong interest in science, would be rather pleased at this breakthrough in quantum physics, right here in little old Ireland. Scientific advances are often made by mistake and somehow, through greed and corruption, we have managed to create a groundbreaking discovery.
First our financial physicists created a gigantic money-accelerator, the Large Have-None Collider, where cash and anti-cash annihilate each other in a huge, secret, underground, Golden Circle. And then they brought forth unliving proof that there was more to Professor Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment than a mere reductio ad absurdum.
And just as in the 1930s, scientific advance is accompanied by a hardening of political attitudes. People right across Europe are required by their leaders to believe utter nonsense, and just as in the Thirties, nobody knows where it will all end.
Unfortunately, the quantum involved in sustaining the dead-and-alive bank is somewhat greater than the minute measurements of standard physics, but that’s a small price to pay for revolutionising science. Unfortunately, Professors Cowen and Lenihan are not men of the same calibre as Einstein and Schrödinger, and therefore their work might not survive a rigorous peer review, but if it does, we could see another first.
Imagine Seánie Fitz winning the Nobel Prize for Physics.