Buttered Cats — The QM perspective

You may have heard recently about the “buttered cat paradox,” a proposition that starts from two time-honored claims:

  • Cats always land on their feet.
  • Buttered toast always lands buttered side down.

“The paradox arises when one considers what would happen if one attached a piece of buttered toast (butter side up) to the back of a cat, then dropped the cat from a large height. …
“[There are those who suggest] that the experiment will produce an anti-gravity effect. They propose that as the cat falls towards the ground, it will slow down and start to rotate, eventually reaching a steady state of hovering a short distance from the ground while rotating at high speed as both the buttered side of the toast and the cat’s feet attempt to land on the ground.”

~~ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buttered_cat_paradox

After extensive research (I poked around with Google a little), I’ve concluded that no-one has addressed the situation properly from the quantum mechanical perspective. The cat+toast system in flight clearly meets the Schrödinger conditions — we cannot make an a priori prediction one way or the other so we must consider the system to be in a 50:50 mix of both positions (cat-up and cat-down).

In a physical experiment with a live cat it’s probable that cat+toast actually would be rotating. As is the case with unpolarized light, we must consider the system’s state to be a 50:50 mixture of clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation about its roll axis (defined as one running from the cat’s nose to the base of its tail). Poor kitty would be spinning in two opposing directions at the same time.

Online discussions of the problem have alluded to some of the above considerations. Some writers have even suggested that the combined action of the two opposing adages could generate infinite rotational acceleration and even anti-gravity effects. Those are clearly incorrect conclusions – the concurrent counter-rotations would automatically cancel out any externally observable effects. As to the anti-gravity proposal, not even Bustopher Jones is heavy enough to bend space like a black hole. Anyway, he has white spats.

However, the community appears to have completely missed the Heisenbergian implications of the configuration.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle declares that it’s impossible to obtain simultaneous accurate values for two paired variables such as a particle’s position and momentum. The better the measurement of one variable, the less certain you can be of the other, and vice-versa. There’s an old joke about a cop who pulled a physicist to the side of the road and angrily asked her, “Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”  “I’m afraid not, officer, but I know exactly where I am.”

It’s less commonly known that energy and time are another such pair of variables – the stronger the explosion, the harder it is to determine precisely when it started.

Suppose now that our cat+toast system is falling slowly, perhaps in a low-gravity environment. The landing, when it finally occurs, will be gentle and extend over an arbitrarily long period of time. Accordingly, the cat will remain calm and may not even awake from its usual slumberous state.

Tom and toastBy contrast, suppose that cat+toast falls rapidly. The resulting impact will occur over a very small duration. As we would expect from Heisenberg’s formulation, the cat will become really really angry and with strong probability will attack the researcher in a highly energetic manner.

From a theoretical standpoint therefore, we caution experimentalists to take proper precautions in preparing a laboratory system to test the paradox.

Next week – Getting more certain about Heisenberg

~~ Rich Olcott

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