Thursday, 18 December 2014

Schrodinger's Socks

It is often said of quantum physics that anyone who says that they understand it needs to go back and have another look, because they clearly don’t.

For instance: there is a wild and wacky world of subatomic particles. If you take two waves in a tank of water and fire them off at the same time when they meet they will interfere with each other, creating further waves. So far so simple.

However if you take a single subatomic particle and fire it at a wall it will, like a 13-year-old boy with a poster of Lady Gaga, interfere with itself (and yes, I’m aware that’s a slightly disturbing analogy). Subatomic particles also react differently depending on whether you observe them or not.

Now there are those that say that quantum physics has no real-life applications: however, they are wrong… especially when it comes to the subject of socks. For instance: take a bunch of washing, including a variety of socks in pairs and put them into your washing machine.

No matter how hard you observe them there will be no correlation between the amount of socks you put into the machine and the amount that you take out.

This is known as Argyle’s Uncertainty Principle, which also goes on to talk about the differentiation between the amount of socks taken out of the machine, hung on the clothes line and eventually paired up into socks.

There is currently no theory as to why this number, expressed mathematically as S = ((WM/CL)x(Px2)), again fails to explain why you can never find a pair of socks in the morning.

It is also a little-known fact that Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment initially had a different subject.

As some of you will be aware Schrödinger postulated that if you were to take a cat and put it in a box with a radioactive isotope then there were 3 possible options: 1) you would open the box to a hissing the ball of fur and claws and win a free trip to hospital, 2) you would open the box to find the cat had asphyxiated or 3) you would open the box to find that the cat had died from radiation poisoning – however until such time as you open the box and observed the contents the cat existed in a state of quantum flux where all 3 possibilities existed at the same time. 

However what is generally less well-known is that after a visit from the Cat Protection League, where Schrödinger spent a very frustrating 12 hours patiently trying to explain that in fact he didn’t even own a cat (something he couldn’t entirely prove because the mere fact that it wasn’t there wasn’t necessarily evidence he didn’t have one), he initially decided to publish his theory as being about being given socks for Christmas: which went likethis...

A present under the Christmas tree that looks like socks, feels like socks and is from a relative world renowned for always providing you with socks does, in fact, only have the potential to be socks until such time as it has opened – until when it could equally be a packet of Jelly Tots, completely empty or something that was actually intended for different relative entirely.

So when your relatives turn up on Christmas day take a moment before you open your presents to hold one up and say: “I don’t know if you realise it, but I am holding in my hand the essence of quantum physics” – they will either be mightily impressed, or they will run for the hills: which depending on how you feel about your relatives can be considered a win-win solution

Merry Christmas and hope to see you in 2015

Monday, 8 September 2014

Little Boxes

It’s late.  The world outside has long since turned to darkness.  The station is empty; only the echo of distant footsteps and the constant blare of the tannoy give it any sense of life.  The doors of the train open and I step inside, making myself comfortable for the two hour journey, turning the space available into my world: enclosing myself away from the rest of the train as I plug in my headphones and listen to the podcast on my phone.

The train is busier than I expected it to be: each person settling in to position in their own way: one is reading the free newspaper from the station, another watches downloaded content on their tablet whilst a third stretches himself over his bag and sinks slowly into sleep.

A few stops down a young couple enter the train and sit opposite me.; their legs intertwining, arms resting on each other’s arms, heads naturally leaning in towards each other.  They talk in low tones as he pulls a receipt from his pocket and draws a grid of dots: ten by ten, resting the paper on her knee. Taking it in turns to pass the pen they draw line after line, trying not to give the other a chance to draw a box.  They are totally lost within their own world now and I try not to watch too intently: choosing instead to pick up a paper or watch their reflection in the darkened window. They could have the whole of the train to themselves but instead they linger in an ever decreasing space, shut off from the rest of the carriage.

The game becomes more serious as she makes a mistake and leaves him open to make a box, putting his initial in the centre and taking an extra turn.  She flirts, perhaps trying to distract him, whispering into his ear: their heads almost touching now.

The train rumbles on through the night: the occasional voice of the tannoy announcer the only reminder that there is a world outside our little enclosure.

Finally my stop arrives and I get up, taking a last look at the scrap of paper before I head towards the door.  He is winning the game: but I wonder who is winning the war.