This is a translation I did some time ago of a short story by a Spanish writer David Roas for the Latin American literature in translation project Palabras Errantes.
Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.
What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!
WOODY ALLEN, ANNIE HALL
In 1937, the physicist ErwinSchrödinger devised an experiment that involved putting a cat inside an opaque box where a dangerous device has been installed: a hammer hangs over a vial of poison, which is connected to a mechanism that detects alpha particles; if one is detected, the hammer falls, breaks the vial and the cat dies. A radioactive atom with a special characteristic is placed with the detector: in the space of an hour it may or may not emit an alpha particle; the probability of it happening or not is the same: 50 %.
Evidently, at the end of the hour, one of the two possibilities will have occurred and the cat will either be dead or alive. But, we cannot know which of the two possibilities has occurred if we don’t open the box to check. The laws of quantum mechanics tell us that while nobody is looking inside the box, the cat will be simultaneously dead and alive. Or, in other words, the two states are superimposed on each other. Upon opening the box, the observer interacts with the system and changes it, he breaks this quantum superposition and the system diverges to one of the two states.
From this paradox, in 1957 the physician Hugh Everett proposed his many-worlds interpretation or the multiverse: the cat is dead and alive, but in two different or parallel universes.
As soon as I went into the pet store, I knew I would end up regretting it. It was all my students’ fault. In yesterday’s class, after explaining Schrödinger’s paradox to them, someone proposed that we carry out the experiment. At first I thought it was a joke and repeated again that Schrödinger’s thesis was nothing more than a simple paradox, a thought experiment: its value was more as a hypothesis than as an effective test of quantum uncertainty. Some of them objected.
Think about it a little, I told them, so this thing doesn’t go any further: if we do the experiment, all we will have when we open the box will be a live cat or a dead cat. That’s it. Could it be that what really takes your fancy is to bump off a poor pussy? If you want to play with little animals you should have studied biology.
Annoyed by my joke, some of them objected. To defend myself I told them to use their imagination (that’s if their PlayStations hadn’t completely killed it off) and to forget about torturing a poor cat. If they were so interested, I said they should read an article published in Nature (www.nature.com/nature/journal/v448/n7155/abs/nature06054.html) in which it is shown how scientists from the Paris Institute of Optics were able to achieve the emission of a small number of photons in a superposition of incompatible states. An optical Schrödinger’s cat! I exclaimed trying to make it seem like an unparalleled achievement.
They didn’t bat an eyelid. The subatomic world could not compete with a hairy mammal. As I didn’t want any more dropouts (Quantum Mechanics I isn’t the most popular course), I pretended that they had convinced me. The truth is that I fancied seeing my students’ disappointed faces doing that useless experiment. The bad thing is that it could cause the death of an innocent animal.
The inevitable sense of guilt I felt as soon as I entered the shop forced me to buy two cats. That way, if one dies, looking after the survivor would return a certain order to the universe. On a literary whim, I bought black ones.
This morning, just after arriving to the university and while I was preparing the necessary equipment to carry out the experiment, it occurred to me to do a test run. There were still three hours until my class and it was for no other reason than to make sure that everything worked properly (I admit it, I had no desire to fail in front of my complaining students). Responsibility defeated guilt and I decided to use the second cat (there were still plenty in the shop, in case they were needed, to appease my guilty conscience). What I didn’t suspect is that it was going to set off a cataclysm of astronomical proportions.
After preparing the box and placing the vial of poison and the various devices inside, I proceeded to put one of the cats in. It wasn’t easy by any means: with unthinkable strength for such a little creature – perhaps its hypersensitive sensory system warned it of what was going to happen – it struggled like crazy, gripping the edge of the box with its sharp claws. Despite, thoughtfully, putting on gloves beforehand, I wasn’t able to avoid its scratches and bites. I ended up having to sedate it in order to close the lid. Its disconsolate meows remained with me for a good while. Oblivious to the protests of his partner, the second cat slept placidly in its cage.
The experiment began at ten in the morning. Since I had what was undoubtedly going to be a long hour ahead, to distract myself I started to organize my notes for an article that I had to submit the following week. But the irritating sensation of wasting my time with a completely useless experiment made me unable to concentrate. I thought about going down to the cafeteria but I didn’t want to leave the poor cat alone. It could wake up and, seeing that it was enclosed, suffer a panic attack and go crazy.
Inevitably, I projected myself onto the cat, onto its fear at being enclosed in that dark box, with its senses alert waiting for something – bad – to happen. Suddenly, I had a vision of myself, as a boy, lying down in the darkness of my bedroom, tormented by fear because I had seen a scientist on television talking about how galaxies moved away from the Earth at terrifying speeds. I went through my entire childhood scared shitless by the expansion of the universe. The same questions tormented me every night: where were those galaxies going? Could the universe expand without stopping? What would happen if it reached the limit of that expansion? And above all, could I escape if that happened? Lying in darkness, the minutes before I fell asleep were complete torture.
To a certain extent, that’s what made me decide to study physics. Not to be able to devise – childishly – an escape from that final disaster, the foretold end of the unstoppable expansion of the universe, but to better understand how our world works. Besides, escape is impossible: when galaxies collapse, everything will end. The laws of physics and thermodynamics are very clear in this respect. But, that will happen billions of years from now and I will have died by then. Moreover, well before the great final collapse the sun will have already burnt out and there will be no earthly spectator of the Big Crunch. Some scientists talk about escaping to a parallel universe in a better state than ours but, for now, that is just a pipe dream.
When I came back to the present, the clock showed 10:35. I started to feel like an idiot seated in front of the box, waiting absurdly for the end of an experiment that wasn’t going anywhere. Suddenly, the box moved and the cat started to growl again. Its counterpart on the outside responded with a long meow. And, as if that was a sign to put an end to this stupidity, I decided to lift the lid.
Neither Schrödinger nor Everett (nor Feynman and other lords of quantum mechanics) could have imagined what awaited me inside the box: two identical black cats. One, its hair standing on end, looked at me with eyes full of rage; the other let out a pitiful whimper and immediately collapsed. Dead. Quantum superposition in all its glory.
Then – I don’t know how else to say it – the fabric of space split. At the very moment I looked inside the box, a blinding flash sprung forth, followed by a suffocating heat and an unpleasant vibration. The blast threw me to the floor. In slow motion and absolute silence, I and everything around me duplicated, as though an enormous mirror had appeared and reflected everything in the room. My other self made a gesture that could mean anything. I saw terror in his eyes.
Suddenly, the twin laboratory and my other self began to move away from me at an implausible speed. I clearly saw one reality separate itself from another. After that dizzying separation, everything regained its usual appearance. The clock on the wall still showed 10:35.
I looked inside the box again: the black cat’s dead body testified that the experiment had taken place, that it wasn’t a hallucination.
I immediately stuck my head out of the laboratory window. Everything seemed normal, as if nothing strange had happened: the sun shone just like any other May morning, several students headed towards the faculty door, others chatted animatedly while smoking in a circle, the lady in the kiosk handed over a newspaper to a student. Ordinariness followed its inalterable course, happily removed from what had happened.
It seems impossible to me that nobody had noticed anything, as if the event itself hadn’t really happened. It’s absurd that by lifting the lid and interrupting the process as designed by Schrödinger that a duplication of the cat was produced and I felt even stupider for having thought it, of the very universe. It was as if by impeding the resolution of the quantum uncertainty, the two states of probability that coexisted in the safe darkness of the box had the same right to continue to exist once I had lifted the lid and looked inside.
At any rate, my interaction with the system proved to be too much for the stability of the universe. The space-time continuum that we inhabited up to a short time ago was divided in half and generated – I can’t think of a better explanation – a new universe. Our double.
At that moment, I felt like a god. And like a jerk as well. Or, more accurately, a jerk god: it doesn’t make me at all happy to have created a double of our miserable reality. The idea that our absurd world has a twin brother, where all that we are is repeated, is unbearable. Although, perhaps things follow their own course there. Maybe.
I started to imagine what my other self would be doing in this other reality: whether he would also be racking his brains to understand what happened. Because, for him, it must be the same: he created a double of his reality. And surely he doesn’t feel proud of causing that disaster, either.
But above all I thought of the cat that accompanies him in that dissociated world: it’s disturbing that he is the only element of that universe that doesn’t have a double by his side because his twin is dead; an incomplete being, asymmetric.
I have been next to the window for a long time. A new meow wakes me from my stupor. I refocus my view outside. Suddenly, I feel a strange tingle. Although reality I see continues to appear the same as I have contemplated on countless occasions (the kiosk, the door to enter the faculty, the students, now I see Martinez pass by, the chemistry professor, when he sees me at the window he waves at me…), everything has taken on, how do I say it? a new tone.
Without thinking, I rub my eyes and look again. Everything seems to have recovered its appearance, its tone. The sensation was fleeting, but, is it really the same reality as a few moments ago? Do I remember it exactly like this or have I modified my memory with its appearance of normality, of regularity? It’s true that I’ve looked out this window hundreds of times, but there could be imperceptible differences beyond my perception.
The only certainty is that nobody seems to have noticed anything.
Maybe it is me who is out of place.
It’s time for my class. The students are waiting for me and I have no excuse for not showing up. I pick up the box and the second cat and slowly head towards the lecture hall.