Factoids about Schrödinger’s Cat

Weirdness is the name of the game for particles the size of an atom or smaller. Quantum particles exist in multiple states and positions at the same time. This can be hard to visualize sometimes, fortunately there’s a couple of metaphors that can help out.

“Factoid” is one of the more curious words in the English language today. It was originally cooked up 1973 by author Norman Mailer while he was penning a biography of Marilyn Monroe as a word to describe “facts” that weren”t accurate. The suffix “-oid” means a “similarity, not necessarily exact, to something else,” so by adding it to the word “fact,” Mailer describes information that is accepted as true, especially by the media, but isn’t

More to the point: In fact, a “factoid” isn’t factual.

By cruel twist of fate, the use of “factoid” has been distorted to the point where its original meaning has been obscured. Over the years it’s been misused (usually by the media ironically) to the point where if you look the definition of this troublesome word up in the dictionary today, the two definitions you are presented with are as follows:

1. A piece of unverified or inaccurate information
2. A brief, somewhat interesting fact.

Condensed down:

1. A piece of information that is not true.
2. A piece of information that is true.

The only way to tell which definition is relevant at any given time is by its context. Until the moment that the word is measured by putting it in a sentence, it means either and both of two polar opposite definitions.

Just like a quantum particle.

Until the moment a subatomic particle like a photon or electron is measured, it exists in every possible state at once. To really illustrate how weird this idea is, Erwin Schrödinger came up with a slightly macabre thought experiment now affectionately known as Schrödinger’s Cat.

There is a box with a cat inside. Also inside is a vial of poison gas hooked up to a Geiger counter and an atom of an unstable element. When the atom decays and emits radiation, the Geiger counter registers it, releasing the gas, and kills the cat. The atom has a certain quantum mechanical probability of decaying at any given moment and until the moment it’s measured, exists as both a decayed and complete atom. Unfortunately for the poor feline involved, this means that until the box is opened, the cat would exist in both a living and a dead state. This is obviously absurd.

The point of the thought experiment is not to actually develop an overly elaborate cat-killing device, or even that the feline in question would actually be both dead and alive, but to illustrate how really bizarre quantum particle behavior really is. Just like the word “factoid” which has multiple definitions at once until its context is determined, so too can subatomic particles exist in multiple states and positions until they’re measured.
We’ve got our own section of daily factoids on our Physics Central homepage. Hopefully it’s easy to quantify what kind of factoids they are. Should we change the name to avoid any confusion?

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