Monday, September 06, 2004

Driving with Schrodinger's Cat

I have a son with a degree in theoretical physics who has tried to explain the subject of quantum mechanics to my limited mind a number of times. Oddly enough, I keep running across references to quantum mechanics in the strangest places these days as well. In conversations, books on philosophy, novels, and finally, I realise, in Cairo traffic. They call it synchronicity when you keep running into the same people or ideas in various contexts at a particular point in time...well, maybe the physicists don't call it that, but people who talk about patterns in one's life do.

Whenever there is casual conversation about quantum anything, Dr. Shrodinger's poor maligned feline gets mentioned. Dr. S' cat was used as a thought problem illustrating the fact that quantum mechanics talks about the probability of something happening rather than the observation of it happening. In the thought problem a cat was to be sealed up in a box in which there was a decaying atom, a device to measure the decay and a relay so that if an atom decayed, a poisonous gas would be released that would kill the cat. Since no one could predict when the particle would decay, the life span of the cat was indefinite but it could be discussed as a probability. Mathematically, the situation would be expressed as the cat being both living and not living to a certain extent, but as we all know, for the most part, that is a condition that is very difficult to achieve. So empirically, the cat would either be alive or dead.

Now the connection between the cat and Cairo traffic occurred to me the other evening when I was navigating the insanity of a summer Thursday evening (like a Friday night elsewhere) in downtown Cairo on my way to my sanctuary in the boondocks. I learned to drive in a country with a booklet of traffic laws on which prospective drivers would be tested. I learned to drive in lanes, obeying traffic signals. These things don't work the same here. When there is an agreed-upon set of rules and markings as to where cars are to go or not to go, a driver can relax a bit and predict where another driver will be. That doesn't happen here ever.

A oneway street in Egypt is, like Schrodinger's cat, an expression of probability. If you start down one, you are not guaranteed to be able to continue without meeting someone head on, but you have a greater probability of not meeting someone. The fact that traffic police usually just make notes on the license numbers of cars having drivers using mobile phones or not wearing seat belts tends to encourage such random behaviour by drivers. I have never seen a driver pulled over by a policeman for reckless, fast, or inappropriately directed driving. It just doesn't happen. When I encountered not one but at least six or eight cars driving in the wrong direction on that Thursday night, I was annoyed but not surprised. It's strictly rollerderby rules out there, but what a great way to learn defensive driving.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that Cairo may just be one huge thought experiment. When I first moved here and was trying to figure out the rules to the game, my late husband told me that "In Egypt everything is forbidden and anything is possible." Sounds like Schrodinger's cat would have been right at home.


Mama Fusla said...

Nice post but who is Schrodinger?

Ron said...

Schroedinger created the wavefunction which describes the motion of all particles at any time. Now, speaking philosphically instead of mathematically, we're all made of particles, and so some say that Schroedinger tripped upon equations that debunk free will.

ألِف said...

Synchronicity! So that's what it is called! I've been an observer of this phenomenon for long years, but never had a name for it other than "weird chance/coincidences".

Now that I blog, I even started to record as much incidents as I can; hoping that I will find a pattern someday. I guess I will just look for a book on the subject as I now have a name for it :-)

In fact, when I think of it, for me to read what you wrote about it at this particular time is another incident that I have to record!!