Home > Mathematics, Miscellaneous, Philosophy, Physics, Science > How to see Schrödinger’s Cat as half-alive

How to see Schrödinger’s Cat as half-alive


Schrödinger’s Cat is a thought experiment used to illustrate the weirdness of quantum mechanics. Namely, unlike classical Newtonian mechanics where a particle can only be in one state at a given time, quantum theory says that it can be in two or more states ‘at the same time’. The latter is often referred to as ‘superposition’ of states.

If D refers to the state that the cat is dead, and if A is the state that the cat is alive, then classically we can only have either A or D at any given time — we cannot have both states or neither.

In quantum theory, however, we can not only have states A and D but can also have many more states, such a for example this combination or superposition state:

ψ = 0.8A + 0.6D.

Notice that the coefficient numbers 0.8 and 0.6 here have their squares adding up to exactly 1:

(0.8)2 + (0.6)2 = 0.64 + 0.36 = 1.

This is because these squares, (0.8)2 and (0.6)2, refer to the probabilities associated to states A and D, respectively. Interpretation: there is a 64% chance that this mixed state ψ will collapse to the state A (cat is alive) and a 36% chance it will collapse to D (cat is dead) — if one proceeds to measure or find out the status of the cat were it to be in a quantum mechanical state described by ψ.

Realistically, it is hard to comprehend that a cat can be described by such a state. Well, maybe it isn’t that hard if we had some information about the probability of decay of the radioactive substance inside the box.


Nevertheless, I thought to share another related experiment where one could better ‘see’ and appreciate superposition states like ψ above. The great physicist Richard Feynman did a great job illustrating this with his use of the Stern-Gerlach experiment (which I will tell you about). (See chapters 5 and 6 of Volume III of the Feynman Lectures on Physics.)

In this experiment we have a magnetic field with north/south poles as shown. Then you have a beam of spin-half particles coming out of a furnace heading toward the magnetic field. The result is that the beam of particles will split into two beams. What essentially happened is that the magnetic field made a ‘measurement’ of the spins and some of them turned into spin-up particles (the upper half of the split beam) and the others into spin-down (the bottom beam). So the incoming beam from the furnace is like the cat being in the superposition state ψ and magnetic field is the agent that determined — measured! — whether the cat is alive (upper beam) or dead (lower beam). (Often in physics books they use the Dirac notation |↑〉for spin-up state and |↓〉 for spin-down.)

In a way, you can now see the initial beam emanating from the furnace as being in a superposition state.

Ok, so the superposition state of the initial beam has now collapsed the state of each particle into two specific states: spin-up state (upper beam) and the spin-down state (lower beam). Does this mean that these states are no longer superposition states?

Yes and No! They are no longer in superposition if the split beams enter another magnetic field that points in the same direction as the original one. If you pass the upper beam into a second identical magnetic field, it will remain an upper beam — and the same with the lower beam. The magnetic field ‘made a decision’ and it’s going to stick with it! 🙂

That is why we call these states (upper and lower beams) ‘eigenstates’ of the original magnetic field. They are no longer mixed superposition states — the cat is either dead or alive as far as this field is concerned and not in any ‘in between fuzzy’ states.

Ok, that addresses the “Yes” part of the answer. Now for the “No” part.

Let’s suppose we have a different magnetic field, one just like the original one but perpendicular in direction to it. (So it’s like you’ve rotated the original field by 90 degrees; you can rotate by a different angle as well.)

In this case if you pass the original upper beam (that was split by the first magnetic field) into the second perpendicular field, this upper beam will split into two beams! So with respect to the second field the upper beam is now in a superposition state!

Essential Principle: the notion of superposition (in quantum theory) is always with respect to a variable that is being measured. In our case, that variable is the magnetic field. (And here we have two magnetic fields, hence we have two different variables — non-commuting variables as we say in quantum theory.)

Therefore, what was an eigenstate (collapsed state) for the first field (the upper beam) is no longer an eigenstate (no longer ‘collapsed’) for the second (perpendicular) field. (So if a wavefunction is collapsed, it can collapse again and again!)

The Schrodinger Cat experiment could possibly be better understood not as one single experiment, but as a stream of many many boxes with cats in them. This view might better relate to the fact that we have beam of particles each of which is being ‘measured’ by the field to determine its spin status (as being up or down).

Best wishes, Sam

Reference. R. Feynman, R. Leighton, M. Sands, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. III (Quantum Mechanics), chapters 5 and 6.

Postscript. It occurred to me to add a uniquely quantum mechanical feature that is contrary to classical physics thinking.   The Stern-Gerlach experiment is a good place to see this feature.

We noted that when the spin-half particles emerge from the furnace and into the magnetic field, they split into upper and lower beams. Classically, one might think that before entering the field the particles already had their spins either up or down before a measurement takes place (i.e., before entering the magnetic field) — just as one might say that the earth has a certain velocity as it moves around the sun before we measure it. Quantum theory does not see it that way. In the predominant Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory, one cannot say that the particle spins were already a mix of up or down spins before entering the field. Reason we cannot say this is that if we had rotated the field at an angle (say at right angles to the original), the beams would still split into two, but not the same two beams as before! So we cannot say that the particles were already in a mix of those that had spins in one direction or the other. That is one of the strange features of quantum theory, but wonderfully illustrated by Stern-Gerlack.

Mathematics. In vector space theory there is a neat way to illustrate this quantum phenomenon by means of `bases’. For example, the vectors (1,0) and (0,1) form a basis for 2D Euclidean space R2. So any vector (x,y) can be expressed (uniquely!) as a superposition of them; thus,

(x,y) = x(1,0) + y(0,1).

So this would be, to make an analogy, like how the beam of particles, described by (x,y), can be split into to beams — described by the basis vectors (1,0) and (0,1).

However, there are a myriad of other bases. For example, (2,1) and (1,1) also form a basis for R2. A general vector (x,y) can still be expressed in terms of a superposition of these two:

(x,y) = a(2,1) + b(1,1)

for some constants a and b (which are easy to solve in terms of x, y). So this other basis could, by analogy, represent a magnetic field that is at an angle with respect to the original — and its associated beams (2,1) and (1,1) (it’s eigenstates!) would be different because of their different directions. As a matter of fact, we can see here that these eigenstates (collapsed states), represented by (2,1) and (1,1), are actual (uncollapsed) superpositions of the former two, namely (1,0) and (0,1). And vice versa!

Analogy: let’s suppose the vector (5,3) represents the particle states coming out of the furnace. Let’s think of the basis vectors (1,0) and (0,1) represent the spin-up and spin-down beams, respectively, as they enter the first magnetic field, and let the other basis vectors (2,1) and (1,1) represent the spin-up and spin-down beams when they enter the second rotated (maybe perpendicular) magnetic field. Then the particle state (5,3) is a superposition in each of these bases!

(5,3) = 5(1,0) + 3(0,1),

(5,3) = 2(2,1) + 1(1,1).

So it is now quite conceivable that the initial mixed state of particles as they exit the furnace can in fact split in any number of ways as they enter any magnetic field! I.e., it’s not as though they were initially all either (1,0),(0,1) or (2,1),(1,1), but (5,3) could be a simultaneous combination of each — and in fact (5,3) can be combination (superposition) in an infinite number of bases.

Indeed, it now looks like this strange feature of quantum theory can be described naturally from a mathematical perspective! Vector Space bases furnish a great example!


  1. January 1, 2014 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks for letting me reminisce about University QM 🙂

    Just to be a physics pedant… there is a slight bit of confusion here. The definite/measured/collapsed states (upper and lower beams) are not eigenstates of the magnetic field. They are eigenstates of the quantum mechanical spin operators Sx,Sy,Sz

    i.e. operator acting on wavefunction = eigenvalue * wavefunction

  2. January 2, 2014 at 1:11 am

    You’re not being a pedant, Sam, for you are right, and thank you. Though in a way, the magnetic field itself acts physically as the spin measuring device here which measures or determines spin.

  3. January 2, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    I have added a postscript at the end of the article that addresses this ‘classical’ issue: it is natural to think that particles that split into two beams already had their spins up or down before they enter the field. And all the field did is ‘sort them out’. Quantum theory, according to the Copenhagen view, says ‘No’! 🙂 I try to explain.

    I also added a mathematical way to visualize what is going on using vector space bases.

  4. January 3, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Good stuff. Keep up the good work 🙂

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