Schrödinger’s Dishwasher

I live in a house that has Schrödinger’s dishwasher.  Or that might as well.  Allow me to explain; no, there is too much.  I will summarize.

For four years, my wife and I rented a house while I went to law school and she worked as a visiting professor.  Shortly after we moved into that house, the dishwasher died and was replaced by the landlord with a new one that was all-digital and which had a neat light that went on when it was finished.  When you first closed the dishwasher after opening it when the cycle had completed, the light went out.  So you knew, or had a pretty good idea, when the dishwasher contents were clean and when they were not.

Two weeks ago, more or less, we moved into our new house, and in it was a dishwasher that had no such light.  So I took a magnet I’d had for a while and marked it so we could keep track:

This works great, but it is (of course) dependent on the family member who starts the dishwasher to put the magnet on the door right-side-up (to indicate that the machine is cleaning or is clean) and the family member who empties the dishwasher to turn the magnet up-side-down, indicating that the dishwasher is not clean. 

Now, if you have a family you may have the same experience that I do–that of quantum uncertainty, akin to the situation of Schrödinger’s Cat.  The eponymous cat is part of a physics thought experiment (no animals or dishes were harmed).  Take a sealed box.  Into it, you place a cat and a sealed vial of poison gas sufficient to kill the cat.  The chamber also contains a Rube Goldberg mechanism consisting of a small amount of radioactive material, a Geiger Counter, a hammer, and various electromechanical parts.  The mechanism and poison cannot be influenced by the cat, and the material decays such that it may (or may not) release a radioactive particle in the course of an hour.  If it does, the Counter detects the particle and releases a hammer that smashes the sealed vial and releases the poison. 

The burden of the experiment is this:  after an hour, is the cat dead or alive?  There are equal probabilities of life or death, but you cannot know the outcome–and implicitly, whether the radioactive substance has undergone decay–until you observe by opening the sealed box.  And was the cat alive, or dead, before you opened the box?  This is a vulgarization, but you get the sense of it, I hope.  Arguably, the cat is both alive and dead until observed.  The observation collapses the probabilities into a certainty.

Our dishwasher works in much the same fashion.  Because there is no indicator as to whether or not it has operated, it is largely dependent–in the absence of someone correctly placing the magnet–on observation.  There are probabilities (likely not the 50% of the cat, but…) that the contents are clean or not-clean.  Only by opening the dishwasher can we collapse the probabilities into a certainty. 

Life is like this more generally.  I have friends who, having attended law school, are now lawyers, and some who are not.  Me? I thought about law school because my old career was drying up, and never thought about anything but becoming a lawyer

But when I was preparing my application, I happened to list my membership in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and subsequently, a professor looked at that and asked me if that was a “dispute resolution” group.  I didn’t quite make that connection then, but I should have realized that it was, and is.  So, after a heads-down first year, I gradually became more and more involved with the notion of reconciliation and mediation.

That’s not what I went to law school for.  But to quote Forrest Gump’s mama, a woman who would have understood Schrödinger’s experiment on another level, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.”

So as I study,once more for the bar exam, and waste time blogging, I stand before you.  Schrödinger’s cat.

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