I originally submitted this essay for the FQXi Physics Essay Contest under the prompt: “How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?” Sadly, I was rejected for “obscenity.” While there is a piece of me that wishes to bash them for restricting my freedom of expression, I really should still thank them for running the contest which gave me the motivation to finally put this idea down on paper. After receiving my rejection, it’s taken me a long time to build up the nerve and courage to post this essay… but here it is. My modest hope is that someone reads this and says, “Wow, I never looked at it that way”.
I can’t claim that this went through a rigorous peer review process though I did have two friends, one a high school physics teacher and one a Ph.D. biomedical engineer, review it for me. I am not certain they would want their names publicly attached to this, so I’ll leave them nameless, but their time was MUCH appreciated.
Edit: Wow… even got removed from reddit’s /r/physics forum. This really is meant to be a well-intentioned, funny article with an overlying positive message. Either the humor isn’t being conveyed will through writing… or people aren’t reading it all to the end and are just getting outraged about the topics… or I’m out of touch with humanity.
How does one write profoundly about physics? Historically, the two most important elements of great physics writing are the thought experiment and the equation. An additional component absent from most textbooks is the often-dramatic story that led to the work: the endless sacrifice, passionate debates, frequent ostracism, and occasional tragedy that result in the elegant, concise laws of physics we know and (some) love.
Thought experiments are plentiful in physics. By stretching the realm of possibility with imagination, one is forced to consider extraordinary physical premises. One familiar example is the thought experiment that wonders, “What would happen to the planets if the Sun were to suddenly disappear?” Isaac Newton theorized that if the gravitational force of the Sun were removed, the planets would immediately abandon their orbit and begin traveling in a straight line path. Several hundred years later, Einstein argued that there must be a time delay before the planets change their course because it must take time for the information of the Sun’s absence to travel millions of miles through space to the planets. It was this thought experiment that later led Einstein to address this contradiction through mathematical equations with his General Theory of Relativity that predicts that information regarding the Sun’s disappearance would travel to the planets at the speed of light through gravitational waves.
When it comes to more complex subjects like quantum mechanics, there are quite a few thought experiments to choose from. The nuances of these experiments could drive someone mad trying to understand how they work, and certainly so after trying to interpret their practical consequences. The most famous quantum mechanics thought experiment is the story of Schrödinger’s Cat.
The story of Schrödinger’s Cat involves a cat that is placed in a locked safe with a radioactive substance and a glass vial of lethal gas. A radiation sensor is also placed inside the safe, which releases the toxic gas from the vial upon detecting any radiation emitted from the radioactive material. Radioactivity is unique in that one can’t know for certain whether radiation has been released, only the probability that it has been released. With every passing moment, there is a further increasing chance that radiation has been emitted, the sensor triggered, and the deadly gas released, killing the cat.
(image from Wikipedia)
The key to this thought experiment is that without opening the door to the safe, we cannot know for sure whether the cat is alive or dead, we can only calculate the probability of each condition. Quantum mechanics teaches us that until the door of the safe is opened and the truth observed, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. This state of being simultaneously in two conditions at once, is referred to as superposition.
While Schrödinger’s Cat gracefully aims to illustrate a profound concept, it treats the human as an unimportant participant whose only purpose is to open the safe door and observe whether the cat is alive or dead. To this point, physicists typically refer to the human as the “observer”. In my opinion, this approach lacks the perspective necessary for the average person to appreciate its significance. After all, the cat is indifferent to the idea that it is alive and dead at the same time, it is the human observer who witnesses this wild phenomenon. I think the goal of physics is not just to describe and predict physical phenomenon but also to bring humanity to them. As far as I know, humans are the only species to study physics, or at least who write books about it. I also think part of the problem is that the use of such an extreme set of conditions, where the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, leads to extravagance at the cost of relatability. My last concern about the Schrödinger Cat story is the use of a radioactive material as the trigger for the poisonous gas. Without a clear understanding of the probabilistic nature of radioactive decay, the thought experiment falls short of mass understanding.
My aim for this essay is to provide a more “observer-focused” thought experiment than Schrödinger’s Cat offers, though it is admittedly influenced and inspired by Schrödinger’s Cat.
Please open your imagination and put yourselves in the shoes of a young man traveling to a remote land. During your journey, you are exposed to a radically different environment – new plant-life and wildlife, unusual architecture, and ultimately, different human culture. Though they are clearly human, the inhabitants of this land feel incredibly foreign to you. The music is different, the language is different, the food, clothing, jewelry, hair styles, physical gestures – even the skin tones, facial hair, and bone structure are different. Some things are the same – the vehicles they drive, the cell phones they use, there is a McDonald’s, and a few of the people have a familiarity with the English language. With such drastic change, your reflex is to feel isolated from these people, almost like an extraterrestrial. After a few weeks in this new land, however, your perspective evolves and you see beyond the superficial qualities you initially fixated on. Instead, you now see all the common features shared by humans of all the countries you’ve traveled: compassion, intellect, curiosity, creativity, sense of humor, and the routine schedule of eating, sleeping, and shitting. For the first time, you’re psyche perceived homo sapiens in its raw, natural, true, and beautiful form.
On the final day of your journey, you visit a local coffee shop and use your computer to check your flight status for the following day. By chance, a woman sitting at the table next to you has the same old HP EliteBook 8560. The statistical probability of this coincidence is very small since most everyone you see these days seems to have invested in a Mac, while you’re cheap ass is still living in the historic era of the PC. You acknowledge the synchronicity with a smile, and, upon realizing she speaks English, introduce yourself. You are struck when you discover that her name is Schrödinger. As the lighthearted conversation grows into hours of deep discussion, you find her name to be the least interesting thing about her! As you both come to the realization you’ve found your soul mate, you sadly inform her that you will be leaving town the next day.
You clearly have a strong connection and wish to celebrate this chance encounter through an intimate act, and the universal homo sapiens culture implies this act should be sexual. She agrees, but informs you that her culture doesn’t practice vaginal sex, since they believe sex without the intention of having a child is irresponsible. To your relief, she explains that she prefers anal sex, as it is a pleasurable, erotic act that has unfortunately been demonized by society and religion.
Shortly thereafter, you find yourself sitting in her apartment having tea. During a heated discussion about the role of social commentary in stand-up comedy, she excuses herself from the table and goes into her bedroom. After a few minutes, she beckons you to come. Your heart and mind racing, you nervously make your way to the door. You open the door and enter the room to a surprise. The lights are off, several candles are lit, and your date is butt-naked, on all fours, facing away from you, and looking over her shoulder at you with an inviting, seductive grin. You move toward her, and she aggressively grabs your hard member, covers it in lubricant, and guides you inside her rectum. In an instant, two magnificently becomes one.
As the excitement takes over your mind and body, an uncomfortable concern enters your mind. Surprisingly, it’s not about the fact that you neglected to use a condom. Instead, it’s an ego-driven doubt: Why is this amazing thing happening to me? This is too good to be true. It can’t be real! Something must be wrong…
Then it occurs to you… you’ve never seen her vagina… and she’s rather thin and flat-chested… you really have no confirmation that this person you’ve joined bodies with is a woman. Had this been 10 years ago, the thought wouldn’t have entered your mind, but since modern society has raised awareness about the prevalence of transgenderism, you are apprehensive. Is this a man or woman you are with? In a moment of enlightenment, you become somewhat indifferent once you realize their sex played no role in the interactions and feelings you’ve shared with them. Though you are pleased with the blissful feeling this epiphany brings to your soul (and the blissful feeling experienced by your rod), your curiosity is uncontainable. Since it is an awkward time to ask their sex, you reach around to the front of their body to feel for the truth.
At this moment, you are the “observer” experiencing a quantum superposition of your partner’s sex. Much like Schrödinger’s Cat who is both alive and dead at the same time, this person you are with is both male and female at the same time. Once you reach around the front for the “feel test,” you will know the truth. Just like opening the door to Schrödinger’s box – the superposition will fail to exist, and reality will reveal itself.
At the surface, the story I’ve shared appears to be nothing more than a sexualized version of Schrödinger’s thought experiment. Like his experiment, we have two undetermined conditions in superposition which snap into reality upon observation. The difference in the experiment I’ve presented is that I am focusing on the experience of the “observer.” Before having the doubtful thoughts (and entering the quantum realm), the observer is in a condition where he believes his partner is a female. This is obviously a distinct condition than if he believed his partner was a male. During the moment of doubt, the ambiguity arises, and I am claiming the man experiences a third condition: the superposition. After reaching around to test, the superposition dissolves and reality presents the partner to either be a man or woman.
It is my aim through this story to emphasize that superposition is not merely a combination of two other states but is a distinct condition of its own. It would be hard to argue that that being balls-deep inside the rectum of a gender-ambiguous person is the same as being balls-deep inside someone you know to be a man or a woman.
Before moving on to the next section, I want to point out that for the sake of simplicity, both the Schrödinger’s Cat and Schrödinger’s Cock thought experiments use systems with two states (live/dead and man/woman). The same thought process can be applied to systems with a larger number of states. As an example, there are an infinite number of names I could have used for the thought experiment I described. After writing this paragraph, I have explicitly revealed that it is called ‘Schrodinger’s Cock,’ thus creating a permanent reality where what might be my greatest writing will be affiliated with an obscene word and someone else’s last name.
I would now like to articulate-by-equation that the Schrödinger’s Cock thought experiment can actually be applied to every aspect of our lives. In fact, my aim is that after reading this, you will realize that you are metaphorically trapped inside the rectum of a gender-ambiguous person, and that this is an incredibly exciting place to be.
In the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, the radioactive material in the safe decays based on probability rather than certainty. It is because of this unique property of radioactive isotopes that we can mathematically calculate the probability at any point in time that the cat will be alive or dead when you open the box. It is much more challenging to statistically calculate the probability that the woman in the Schrödinger’s Cock story turns out to be a man. While current statistics show that 0.3% of people in the United States identify as transgender, this number doesn’t necessarily relate to the probability of incorrectly guessing someone’s sex who you are currently penetrating.
Although the probability of this particularly unlikely event is nearly zero, the more mysterious sexual encounters that the traveling man has, the more likely it is that he will eventually find himself inside someone whose sex he assumed incorrectly. As you increase the number of low-probability events being considered, the probability of one from within the set taking place increases. If the number of low-probability events being summed is infinite, you have a 100% probability that at least one event from within the set of events will occur. That is to say, that if the traveler has sexual encounters without asking his partners’ sex for the rest of eternity, he will eventually find himself inside a male he mistook for a female.
As we move toward forming an equation, let’s begin with a simple example using numbers. Let’s pretend we are rolling dice at a casino. The probability of rolling a seven using two dice is one in six. To reward you, the casino rewards your bet four to one. Therefore, if you bet $10, you have a one in six chance of winning $40 dollars and a 5 in 6 chance of winning nothing. To find your expected outcome E(X), we add up the products of the outcome of the individual events xi and the probability of them occurring pi:
$40 × 1/6 + $0 × 5/6 = $6.67
The expected outcome of $6.67 implies that, with enough bets, a gambler can expect to walk away with 67 cents on the dollar.
In our Schrödinger’s Cock thought experiment, we have two possible outcomes: that the partner is a male or the partner is a woman. The probability is high that they are a female, but there is a small, nonzero probability of them being a male. To simplify things, let’s assume this probability is 1%. Mathematically, the expected outcome would imply that the “superposition-person” you are inside of is 99% female and 1% male. Practically, this feels unrealistic just like when we realize that Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead at the same time.
Therefore, I prefer to consider the superposition as not just the sum of two possibilities, but to be its own distinct state. As I mentioned, we would hardly consider the state of not knowing whether you have a man or woman at the end of your tool to be simply the sum of the two possibilities.
Outside of rolling the dice in casinos and bedrooms, there are many more unpredictable events that occur in our universe. In fact, there are an infinite number of events occurring every moment. Some have high probabilities of occurring and some have low probabilities. Looking right now at the weather, I see tomorrow the chance of rain is high, at 70%. On the lower end of the spectrum, I have a client who is six weeks late paying my invoice who has assured me I’ll be paid tomorrow, but I know there is a very low probability that will happen. I would say it is more probable that I discover I have mistaken his sex.
In order to write an equation that represents the superposition of all of the possible events (X) of the Universe (U) for all points in time (t) we would need to sum up an infinite number of events (i) with their respective outcomes (xi) and probabilities (pi):
While Murphy’s Law states that “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” this more optimistic Law states that “anything that can happen will eventually happen and might even be happening right now.’
The consequences of this simple equation are significant. If we are summing every event that is possible, even the improbable, we have to include some unusual possibilities. For example, it is possible, although improbable, that purple aliens are currently attacking a distant part of the earth. There are countless low-probability events like this: aliens are attacking New Zealand, aliens are attacking Antarctica, the aliens are green, the aliens are red, the aliens are orange… If alien attacks are too obscure and unrealistic to you, there’s higher (but still small) probability that a serious earthquake is taking place right now in California. In fact, it’s probable enough that it sends a shiver down my spine to write this sentence for fear that an earthquake actually is happening while I write about it.
Don’t be alarmed; it’s not all bad news. There are also infinite positive things that might be happening right now. I may find $20 in my pocket (Nope. Dang!). I may find that my tea is still hot despite sitting on the table in front of me for quite some time without me taking a sip (Yes, it is!). The love of my life may walk into this coffee shop and be impressed to see nerd writing about what I call physics on a Friday night and begin a conversation with me (after a dozen nights at coffee shops working on this, this has proven to be a near-zero probability).
While these events would be taking place directly in front of me, other events that have a positive influence on me might be occurring beyond my perception. Someone influential in the alternative education community might learn about my work with the digital community I built for teen unschoolers and consider donating to the mission. Someone reading this essay may love it and want to collaborate on the physics sketch comedy show I’ve been working on. Of course, it’s also possible that that I’m blackballing myself from both the alternative education and physics community indefinitely by including repeated references to anal sex in my essay on quantum mechanics.
For any event you can imagine, the probability of each outcome occurring is in superposition with its probability of not occurring. Therefore, we can think of every event in the Universe as an incidence of the Schrödinger’s Cock scenario. Our reality, therefore, is the sum of an infinite number of Schrödinger’s Cocks. To see the impact on our daily lives, I’d like to draw up another thought experiment.
It’s been said that if you were riding inside a train with no windows traveling at a constant speed and direction, you would not be able to measure how fast it is traveling, the direction of travel, or whether it is moving at all. In addition to your ignorance about the train’s velocity, you would also be incapable of knowing anything occurring in or affecting anything in the outside world. This is an interesting form of sensory deprivation that focuses specifically on your perception of motion. Since very few of us travel on trains with no windows, this is hard to mentally emulate.
Instead, let’s translate this to a scenario we are all familiar with: imagine yourself sitting on a toilet in a small bathroom with an exhaust fan running.
In this scenario, you exist in a makeshift sensory deprivation chamber: the sound of the fan blocks out any auditory signals from outside the room, the smell you are creating outcompetes any olfactory sense from outside the room, the closed door blocks out any visual signal from the outside, your tactile senses are limited to within the room, and there’s not much to taste. In this moment, you have absolutely no information about the events taking place in the world outside the bathroom and have no control over any of the events taking place in the world outside the bathroom.
During the time you are sitting on that toilet, an infinite number of possible events that might be happening outside the bathroom exist in a superposition. You are essentially trapped inside a giant game of Schrödinger’s Cock, sitting inside the rectum of an individual with an infinite number of sexes (that might explain the odor). When you open the door and walk out of the bathroom, you will be presented with one of these realities. Opening the bathroom door is analogous to reaching around your partner’s body to check the sex of the world.
The thought experiment simplifies things by placing you in a physically closed environment, effectively creating two realms: 1) the bathroom and 2) “everything else.” While the bathroom creates a very literal sensory deprivation barrier around you, it is critical to appreciate that sensory deprivation is an inescapable condition that affects you no matter where you are. You always have a limit to your vision, to your hearing, to your smelling, to your touch, and to your taste. I like to imagine there being a perception “cloud” that surrounds each of us to emphasize the fact that the limitations are not the same for all senses. You can see farther than you can hear, you can hear farther than you can smell, and you can smell farther than you can taste, etc. The world is always much larger than your sensory perception, and you are being presented with a new array of sensory input at every instant. Yes, the internet may make things seem only an instant away, but all of the events of the extended world are beyond your literal immediate perception.
I’ve presented to you a perspective on reality that boils down to you wandering through life trapped in a metaphysical toilet stall located inside an ass hole, surrounded by a world of infinite possibility. This cloud of possibility is one which you cannot escape, much like the character Pig-Pen from the Charlie Brown comics who is surrounded in a cloud of dirt at all times. In a way, I’ve presented this as if you are trapped inside a ride at an amusement park, a premise which leads me to a wonder whether I am presenting a Universe of pre-destination or one of free will.
(image from Wikia)
I am not going to argue about free will; you certainly have it. You are free to act in any way you choose. I must point out, however, that you are acting in response to the world that is presented to you from beyond your “perception cloud.” All of your actions are reactions. This must be the case, because the Universe was here before you were born and presumably will be here long after you’re gone. You do not control the world beyond the cloud. Much like in a video game, you can control your character, but you cannot control what they encounter in the game. Therefore, you may feel like you have control but the events which you can control are incredibly limited. It feels to me that control is ultimately an illusion.
You can react to these events which are presented to you on this rollercoaster ride of life. You can enjoy the ride. You can hate the ride. It can scare you at times. I hope it brings reassurance that you are not alone on the ride: you are accompanied by six billion other human passengers and a fuck ton of animals. Regardless of whether you like the passengers on the ride or not, you are stuck on the ride with them. The ride will be a lot more fun if you get along with the people next to you.
I am trying to bring you a satisfying conclusion that says this: since the number of things we have no control over is so astronomically large, we have essentially zero control over the world. Sure, the extreme scenario is possible where you blow up the rollercoaster ride and kill all the passengers, but even this event relies on factors beyond your control: the availability of explosives, safe transportation to the scene of the bombing, the possibility of you witnessing a beautiful sunset that shifts your consciousness toward a higher calling, or getting a phone call the morning you plan on blowing up the rollercoaster from a friend who has tickets to see Chumbawumba in concert which no one could resist.
Despite this limited control, you must still participate in the world. If you don’t eat, the rollercoaster ride is over. So you must eat. If you don’t drink water, the ride is over. So you must drink water. If you take good care of your body, you can enjoy the ride more thoroughly. If you get along well with the people around you, the ride is better for everyone.
Now that you’ve realized that you’re trapped on a rollercoaster that’s effectively a toilet seat that is inside a rectum, do you feel yourself going crazy? I have.
It is in considering the sum of all imaginable (and unimaginable) low-probability events that my mind has exploded. Thinking of extraterrestrials: aliens arriving to Earth, aliens having visited here a long time ago, discovering aliens on another planet… Thinking of conspiracies: Kennedy Assassination, the moon landing, 9/11… The religious stories: walking on water, turning water into wine, parting the Red Sea … The physical possibilities: time travel, telepathy, light-speed travel, teleportation, communicating with the dead… Knowing that some of these “crazy” events are possible is exciting. What’s even more exciting, however, is knowing that there are countless farfetched events which are possible that I haven’t even imagined!
How could this not drive someone crazy? Knowing that behind every corner I might be presented with an incredibly improbable event. At times it makes me afraid, but most of the time it makes me run around through life peeking behind every corner hunting for the next improbable event, like I’m on a perpetual Easter egg hunt. This can, unfortunately, be a dangerous game to play in modern society. While it may seem like a fun game to wander around a busy city treating it like you’re very own Grand Theft Auto (minus the murder, theft, and prostitution), it is quite unsafe. It is much safer pursuing this adventure outside the city limits, preferably in nature. The obvious problem with this is that you are now in a video game without any humans, and the popularity of video games only featuring a single human character is pretty low or involves you going around murdering zombies and monsters all day. Maybe my perspective sounds absurd, I’ve been told its crazy. You may be relate easier to the thrill of chasing improbable events when you open your web browser each morning looking at the news for the day hoping the Universe will present you with something exciting. You’ll notice that the low-probability events capture your attention and interest, providing for something to think and talk about for the day.
I hoped maybe I’d draw a conclusion from writing this essay that would bring a certain value to my readers. In a much more selfish way, I hoped the process of writing this would help me answer questions about my own life. Maybe I’d be able to find the answer to that golden question: What do I do with my life?
It appears that the answer to these questions might not matter. My impact on this world will be miniscule, at least in the big picture. Even if I end up being the savior of all living things on Earth – my impact on the Universe is still minute. There was a time when all we knew existed was our own village and we actually had the ability to make a huge impact on it. As our neighbors traveled and mapped out the land, we learned we were part of a country… then a continent… and now technology shows us everything happening on the whole planet in almost real-time. It is a strange paradox that as the size of our perceived world increases, we feel that our impact is lessening, while at the same time our technology is enabling our ambitions to grow more far-reaching.
In writing this essay, I’ve concluded that I should act in life the way I would ideally act on a rollercoaster. I should do my best to eat well, drink a lot of water, and get sleep. Being on a rollercoaster when you are sick is a horrible experience. When the ride is going crazy, I should drink it in. It’s not always crazy, oftentimes it’s boring, so I should really embrace those exciting times. When the ride is slow, I should talk with the people next to me and get to know them. The crazy parts of the ride are more fun when you know the people next to you. The slow times are a great opportunity to share stories of the things I’ve seen and, more importantly, to listen to the stories of things they’ve seen. These conversations may give me some insight as to where to look when we’re back at the top of the rollercoaster. As I think of my experiences on rollercoasters, some of the best moments are at the highest point when you get an amazing view right before the invigorating downward spiral.
In thinking of those amazing views, I will close by sharing a photograph that gives a great illustration of the idea of the “perception cloud” I previously described. I visited Sequoia National Park last spring and hiked to the top of Moro Rock expecting to look out and see a vast, lush valley. Instead, I found myself looking out at a blanket of clouds. While my vision was deprived, I knew there was a whole world beyond my view waiting to be encountered. The photo is heavenly if nothing else.