Inking up the blogosphere. And no, I don't glow in the dark. But thanks for asking.

September 16, 2009

Boxes Of Cats and Falling Trees

I’m going deep today. I’m posing the ol’ theoretical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

From a scientific standpoint, sound production requires a source, a means of transference, and a receiver. In that view, the tree makes sound waves but no sound itself because there's nothing to receive them. From a philosophical standpoint, there is the theory of subjective idealism which states that things cease to exist if they are not observed—i.e.: 'to be is to be perceived'. So if there is nothing to witness it, the tree doesn’t exist in our minds and thus won’t make a sound.

Closely related to this argument is the principle known as the Observer Effect, that the act of observing something can change the event being observed. People are known to change their behavior if they are being watched, and in order to observe or measure something an instrument has to be used, which will impart a change on the object being observed, thus affecting it in some way.

When I went through Navy nuke school, things were fine and dandy until we started delving into the quantum physics portions. At that point, it was a real challenge for me to suspend disbelief—a lot of the ideas were real brain-benders. I had to tape an “I Believe” button to my desk. In quantum mechanics, an object exists in a state called ‘superposition’—being in all states at once—until it is observed. Essentially, the act of observing something will force it into its quantum state at the instant of measurement. There is the notorious thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat: place a cat into a sealed box containing a tiny bit of a radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, a hammer, and a vial of a toxic substance. Using mathematical probability, the substance will either radioactively decay (emitting radiation) or it won’t. If it does, the Geiger counter will register, triggering the hammer to strike the vial of toxin and the cat will die. If it doesn’t, nothing will happen and the cat will live. While the box remains sealed and you can’t observe the cat, it is both alive and dead in equal probability. It is not until you open the box and see the cat does its quantum state become observed.

Now, if you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the price of tea in China. The thing is, I can’t help but think about these things and apply them to the news media. By and large, most of us get our information about what’s happening in the world around us from some media outlet. It has become such that, if something is reported in the news it becomes fact—and therefore ‘exists’. If something isn’t reported, it ceases to be in our minds. If we report Taliban and al Qaeda actions as merely insurgent or militant, they cease to be terrorists. If we cover a celebrity’s death for a week, a soldier who died for his country will not be known. An unobserved event is one which imparts no information on any other thing; it therefore can have no legacy in the present (or ongoing) wider physical universe. It may then be recognized that the unobserved event was absolutely identical to an event which did not occur at all.

Just some food for thought.

Edit: I just realized that there might be a third probable outcome in the Schrödinger's Cat experiment--If the cat in question was Cat Norris, then he would disable the Geiger counter with a stunning roundhouse kick, drink the poison and laugh at death, use the hammer to pry his way out of the box, and proceed to turn the scientist into a whimpering pile of Jell-O.