Short Fiction

Viennese Meow

By Glynne MacLean

I  see no need for any further evolution on my behalf. I have humans for that. Their technologies and modernisation should take care of everything. Too many of my relatives can't see past their whiskers in believing that the primary responsibility of humans is to keep us in the style to which we ought to be accustomed. I however regard that as secondary to their wider responsibilities in advancing our species. There are inconvenient hitches of course. Today for one. On a day when, at long last, the sun has succeeded in lightening Berlin's sludge of a sky I have been removed from my warming window sill and deposited in a box. My midmorning snooze was interrupted without so much as a please or a thank you and I was transported in an undignified, dangling midriff lift into the chilly laboratory and dumped askew into a second-hand, cardboard box.

Why? For the purposes of an experiment Herr Schrödinger says. I do so wish humans would use their brains to experiment in. They seem to have the need to do things. Herr Schrödinger's excuse is that the act of placing me in the box will assist in focusing his mind. I suppose that makes sense. There is nothing quite as mind focusing as the observation of a higher being. I will just have to sit here and endure my human's experiment in the hope that it's all in a good cause.

Oh dear, I'm to be subjected to a running commentary. The beauty and the beast of an intelligent human. They insist on justifying their actions. It's not as if they'd listen if I bothered to point out the flaws in their reasoning but at least they get there in the end. Mark my words within a century they'll be producing a brief history of time.

Herr Schrödinger is advising me that in his mind, I'm to share this box with a Geiger counter, a minute amount of an unspecified, radioactive substance, and a flask of hydrocyanic acid. What a relief I'm not in his mind — there's barely enough space for me to turn around in here without the addition of experimental paraphernalia. I've rotated three hundred and sixty degrees no less than six times — three to the left and three to the right and believe me neither the view, nor the smell, improves no matter which way I face. I believe the two previous occupants of this box were tinned sauerkraut and red beets going mouldy around the edges. How very rural. I do so miss the aromas of Vienna. Not once since my forced relocation to Berlin have I caught even the slightest scent of a freshly baked Sacher Torte tantalising the pre-dawn air—

Eeow! Don't shut me in! I need fresh air to ensure my fur isn't polluted by the insidious scent of stale sauerkraut. An hour? Would you believe he's insisting that he needs me boxed in this sauerkraut cell for an hour?

Oh, of course — why didn't I think of that? He requires an hour to allow the atoms to decay or not decay. You know the unspecified, but imaginary, radioactive substance, apparently if it decays it releases the hydrocyanic acid and I theoretically die. If it doesn't decay then no acid is released and I don't die. He's stressing that it's all to do with probabilities. I think I'll have a nap. Probability equations turn my tail grey and I have such a fine tail. I receive affirmations as to its majesty both day and night. By day the promenading ladies coo and curl their hands in imitation of its fine form and by night feline friends and foe can't help but admire its magnificence. Grey hairs would undermine my tail. Now silver hairs, on the other paw, are quite another matter, they are indicative of maturity and experience. You'll never meet a silver tailed cat that doesn't have his world and humans well ordered.

Oh dear, Herr Schrödinger's talking again.

He's pounced onto the topic of the Copenhagen Interpretation and he's worrying it like half dead prey. A change from vectors. I can't bear to count how many times Herr Schrödinger has reiterated to me that vectors are as fundamental and important to theoretical physics as the alphabet is to writing. I've never tried writing. Every time he starts on again about vectors I contemplate the evolutionary implications of writing. We don't write. There are those of us that privately paint to the excitement and rapture of their immediate humans but none of us write. Paws are such a wonderful development and a clear demonstration that evolution has done its job. Those that serve, and pursue science, have opposing thumbs and vocal chords: those that command, and move with exceptional elegance, have paws and purr.

So today it's the Copenhagen Interpretation. He says we are to wait an hour to allow the radioactive event to occur and not occur. Yes, he said occur and not occur. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics the act of observation of a quantum system determines the outcome. Without the act of observation both outcomes simultaneously occur as one event. It's all about wave function collapse and the probability of a particular particle being found, or measured, at a particular location or in a particular state. Hmmm. In short I'm being informed that as long as this rather unspectacular box, I'm occupying, remains shut beyond the hour required for the 'radioactive event' both outcomes will simultaneously occur. It is the act of opening the box that determines whether or not the atoms have decayed and released the acid.

A nap is obviously out of the question. Even if I could ignore the sauerkraut, there is no way I can sleep with a running commentary burbling about me. He's like an alpine stream at spring. As he warms to his topic the volume and speed of his verbal deliberations accelerate. Added to which I don't believe this Copenhagen Interpretation is at all plausible. Herr Schrödinger sounds less than confident almost scathing about the simultaneous occurrence of multiple states combined as one. I detect an incomplete explanation. One knows when one's human is editing their verbal output. I see I will have to investigate myself. Rather than feigning patience, while my human conducts his thought experiment, I will participate. I will suppress my awareness of my actual surroundings and exercise my not insignificant intelligence. I too will conduct the thought experiment and report my experience. Let's see if Herr Schrödinger and I agree. I am after all the centrepiece of the experiment.

Allow me to focus.

A moment please.

Right all items are in place and time is ticking by. Now, let's see exactly what occurs.

Herr Schrödinger is reporting that by now I am smeared — yes he said smeared — smeared into a substance comprising of equal parts of dead and alive cat — giving me the simultaneous properties of both half-­deadness and half-aliveness.


I can assure you I am entirely unsmeared. At no stage do I represent anything akin to the substance of mustard. Nor am I either half dead or half alive.

My state is far more interesting than that. I am entirely whole — twice. Yes there are two of me! Even more fascinating is that one whole of myself is alive and well, breathing, a vision of intellectual concentration, while the other whole of myself is quite dead, without breath or consciousness, and lying in state as splendid as a pristine sphinx, even if I do say so myself.

How delightful. I've always wanted to see myself as others see me. What a exquisite tail, the configuration of my ears is almost sublime…

Herr Schrödinger just has to interrupt! His auditorium voice is as difficult to ignore as an unannounced summer squall. At least he's back to talking sense though. I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies. He's now lecturing me on the finer details of decoherence.

Now there's an elegant idea for you. A leakage of the quantum nature of the system in question into the environment in which it exists. Of course the probabilities of all of this occurring is so small as to be almost immeasurable but I leave hair greying to Herr Schrödinger and his peers. I do however like the concept. In short the act of opening the box to determine whether or not I am dead or alive, that is whether or not the imaginary radioactive atoms have decayed or not, determines the outcome.

I, of course, am sure that I will be alive and my observation of my aliveness at the act of the opening of the box will make it so. My hypothesis is that as I am at the centre of the experiment my observation, at box opening, will occur before Herr Schrödinger observes anything thus making my observation the controlling event.

No doubt we shall see.

Aha, my faith in the intellectual ability of humanity has not been entirely misplaced. Herr Schrödinger is prattling on about the ludicrosity of the smearing advocated by the Copenhagen Interpretation. Excellent. If I thought for a moment that he'd listen I would of course enlighten him. Mind you to ensure their usefulness humans do need to learn from their mistakes. Some, among my peers, believe humans take greater heed of their mistakes than they do of their triumphs. I however refer the doubters to the implementation, and uptake, of spectacles. Without them evolution would have disposed of all ocularly inefficient humans but survival of the fittest has been bypassed.

Oh at last — Herr Schrödinger's about to open the box.

A moment please. I must concentrate. No matter how superb my corpse does appear to be I do have, at last count, another seven lives to live. Well, seven if this has not cost me one – six if it has. Either way I have no intention of being embalmed for eternity in Sauerkrautduftstoff.

Aha, the box is opened and as I predicted I am a single being and alive. Herr Schrödinger is quite delighted.

Now that I'm out I must wash.

What a relief. I'm now both sauerkraut and red beet free. A few stylish stretches to elongate my muscles and reinvigorate my circulation and I will be ready to commence supervision.

Humans must be supervised for the most important of tasks and as such I shall now supervise the writing up of this experiment. A distant cousin of mine, an American now domiciled in England, is supervising his human's writing up of a short memorable piece to inform humans on the appropriate protocols to observe when naming cats. He advises that his human prefers to present it as part of a feline collection and therefore not to expect the publication for some years.

I have decided that I shall name this stimulating thought experiment after me, with due deference to Herr Schrödinger for initiating the exercise. Henceforth this experiment shall be known as "Schrödinger's Cat" thus avoiding any need for me to disclose my name.

I shall ensure that, even without my insight to the actual events, Herr Schrödinger's account shall highlight the idiocy of the smearing aspect of the Copenhagen Interpretation and the gaps in human knowledge of the field. For the lesser scientifically disposed quarters of humanity I predict that Schrödinger's Cat will serve as a tantalising introduction to the mind flexing concepts of quantum physics perhaps even advancing, or should I say declining, into popular culture.

To the human science fraternity Herr Schrödinger's report will suggest they consider this thought experiment and realise that they "must try harder". Their theories and the latest high-fashion hypotheses are, at best, incomplete. They'll leap at the opportunity even if only in an attempt to prove Herr Schrödinger wrong. They always do and with such venom as if their survival depends on exceeding all others and most of all being first. I don't doubt for a moment that it will generate far reaching scientific discussion, great verbal debate, much greying of hair and lead the most intellectual of our humans to come closer to grasping the inherently probabilistic nature of the universe.

Such supervised deep thought and greying of hair on behalf of our humans far outstrips the progress and benefits of evolution. Forget back to nature.

As usual our humans will do the work for us.

And please fear not. As the only one who knows I can assure you that no cats were harmed in this experiment — I lived and died to tell my tale.

On to the future.

A Quantum Conundrum

Viennese Meow was published on 31st January, 2009.

About the Author

Glynne MacLean Biography »