Week 5: Schrodinger's cat walks into a bar...

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Monday, July 11, 2016


Tabitha Colter

And doesn’t.


Now normally they say that if you have to explain why a joke is funny, it’s not a very good joke. However as a firm advocate for intelligent puns and jokes I have to disagree. A joke that makes you think a little is never a bad thing.

So here’s the scientific explanation for why this joke is really hilarious to scientists:

You may have heard jokes in the past begin with the phrase “[insert occupation or person here] walks into a bar and…”. It’s a common format for jokes and one readily used for a multitude of jokes that cover politics to religion to basically anything else. So naturally, some scientists also had to adopt it.

Erwin Schrodinger was one of the most famous quantum physicists in history, meaning he taught us a lot about how really really tiny things behave (and more interestingly, how they don’t behave like the big things we interact with in our everyday lives). He also is the creator of one of the most famous scientific thought experiments/paradoxes to come out of the 20th century. Without going into excessive detail of mathematical formulas that look like this:


I’ll try to keep it simple. The thought experiment imagines a cat put into a steel box and put into a situation in which its life or death is intrinsically tied to whether or not the atom decays. Radioactive decay is a random process that is impossible to predict and thus the atom exists in a state known as superposition- both decayed and not decayed at the same time. Since it’s impossible to know whether the atom is decayed or not, whether the cat is alive or dead is also impossible to know until the moment the box is opened. Not just like difficult to know, I mean intrinsic properties of how the universe works makes it so that it can never be determined correctly whether the cat is alive or dead until the box is opened. But before the box is opened, the cat must be assumed to be in a combination of all its possible states and thus is both alive and dead at the same time. Or in other words, the cat both walks into a bar because it’s alive, and doesn’t because it’s dead.

For a slightly more technical and in-depth explanation of how this works check out this NatGeo article


So now that I’ve tricked you into learning a little bit about quantum physics, it’s time to talk about the week!


During the work week, I attended some great briefings on Zika, care for children with chronic illnesses, nuclear fuel, and gender equality and energy access. It was the second to last week of Congress being in session for the summer so the Hill is a rush of everybody trying to push final bills before recess. After July 15th, Congress will not be back in session until September 6th so you can understand why it’s a crazy scramble to get things done before everyone leaves for two months!

Another highlight of my week included a visit to the Pentagon! Throughout the past weeks I’ve been trying to arrange different meetings with people involved in science policy to discuss the paths they’ve taken to get to where they are. One of these people I was lucky enough to meet with was a Mr. Paul Davis, a plasma physicist who now works for the Department of Defense as a policy fellow. When I emailed him about the possibility of meeting, he mentioned that we could either do a phone call or I could come to the Pentagon to meet with him. I tried to conceal my excitement about getting an opportunity to go to the Pentagon and sent him some information to get pre-cleared with security. The Friday morning I met with him, I headed over to the Pentagon a little early to walk to the 9/11 memorial there before my meeting. The memorial was very well designed, with elaborate documentation and age lines. The 184 units within the memorial are located on age lines according to the year the victim was born, from the youngest victim aboard flight 77 who was only 3 years old to the oldest who was a 71 year old Navy veteran. Having the chance to walk around the memorial was breathtaking and a great way to start the morning. After that, I stood in line for twenty minutes to get into the Pentagon where I met with Mr. Davis for about half an hour. Opportunities like this one over the summer have been a great experience to speak with other people who are actively within the world of science policy and hear the paths they have taken. Plus I got to go to the Pentagon- I mean how cool is that?? Biggest regret: Not having time to get anything from the gift shop and not being able to take photos inside.


After that stellar start to Friday, things got even better for the weekend. My boyfriend came up from Tennessee to visit for the weekend which meant I got to really play DC tourist for the first time all summer! We spent hours at the Air and Space Museum, went on an official tour of the Library of Congress, biked around the city to the monuments, and had a picnic at the Tidal Basin by the Jefferson Memorial and watched the sun set over the Potomac River. Of course we also squeezed in a visit to the White House and planned a tour of the Capitol too! It was a great opportunity for me to show off the little bit of the city I’ve gotten to explore on my own as well as to further explore the city with fresh eyes. A great way to celebrate the halfway point of my internship!

Library of Congress

Library of CongressSunset over the Jefferson MemorialDinner under a canopy

Tabitha Colter