The famous cat mental experiment in a box by Erwin Schrödinger is an illustration of one of the defining characteristics of quantum mechanics: the unpredictable behavior of particles at that level.
This feature makes working with quantum systems incredibly difficult. But what if we could make predictions? A team of physicists believes it is possible. In a new study, they demonstrated their ability to predict something called “quantum leap” and even reverse the process once started. That’s why they said they “saved Schrödinger’s cat” although there was never a cat anywhere.
Who is Schrödinger’s cat?
First, a quick review of this character that is talked about so much and not explained much. It is nothing more than a metaphor to explain complex concepts. The physicist who named it imagined the scenario as follows: We have a cat in a closed box and in that box there is also a source of radioactivity, a Geiger counter and a poison sealed flask. If the Geiger counter detects the radioactive decay of a single atom, it will cause the poisonous flask to break, which will kill the cat.
There is no way to look inside the box, so you can’t know if the cat is alive or dead. Both exist until you open the box. The instant you do it, it is necessarily one or the other, completely random, and they can no longer be both at the same time anymore.
All this imaginary configuration explains the quantum superposition, whereby a particle (such as an atom, an electron or a photon) can exist in multiple energy states at the same time until the moment in which it is observed. Once observed, the sudden and random transition that occurs between energy states is known as “quantum leap” and, like the living or dead cat, it cannot be turned back.
We can choose
But now, Yale scientists have published in Nature that they believe the jump is not instantaneous, but very fast. Dr. Zlatko Minev, first author of the research, said: “When you open the box, in other words, when you begin your observation, generally at that time [the transition from one state to another] seems abrupt and instantaneous,” but in a smaller time scale, the situation is very different.
In other words, once the box is opened, a process is triggered, not an instant event. The fact that it is a process grants the possibility of reversing, which means that Schrödinger’s cat could be recovered from its fatal destiny.
What applications do you have?
All this seems like mental games to think for a long time and not be able to reach a conclusion, but they are also the basis on which quantum computing is based. Each of these jumps could be an error in the calculations. Similarly, controlling them as this study suggests, raises the possibility of controlling them, detecting when errors are about to occur and, therefore, preventing them.
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