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To Skin a Cat

02/03/2011

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago about the thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat. It’s called “To Skin a Cat”. The science is perhaps a little dubious.

Dr. Mudryi refused to participate, and so Dr. Keane and Dr. Katsu flipped a coin to see who would enter the airtight closet for an hour. This way, both physicists had a fifty percent chance of being chosen. Since the probability of the poison being released in sixty minutes was also fifty-fifty, Keane and Katsu each had a twenty-five percent chance of dying. They saw this as an acceptable level of risk.

Their goal was to resolve one of the paradoxes that had haunted quantum physics for decades. To do this, they would perform a classic thought experiment called Schrödinger’s Cat. Except, in an hour it would no longer be a thought experiment, but a real one.

And they weren’t going to use a cat.

Katsu produced a quarter, and flipped. Keane called heads, and won. Or rather, he lost. He turned to face the closet.

Mudryi put a hand on his shoulder. “Think about this, Kevin. Think about why you’re doing this. So your kids can be both with and without a father at the same time?”

Keane’s mouth twitched. “Only for an hour, Alex.”

“And then they may really be fatherless.”

Keane hesitated. “Open the door,” he said.

Katsu eyed Mudryi, then bounded forward. He turned the knob and flung the door wide.

Again, Keane wavered. “Remember. If I’m dead when you open the door, it was a suicide. You found me here.”

“We know,” said Katsu.

Keane nodded. He looked at Mudryi.

“Goodbye, old friend,” said Mudryi.

Keane grimaced, and entered the closet.

*

Before the door closed, Keane eyed the apparatus. A plastic shield covered the Geiger counter, preventing him from tampering with it. Inside was a small amount of radioactive substance, which had a fifty percent chance of decaying within an hour. If the particle decayed the counter would detect radioactive substance, sending out a small electric charge. A relay would be initiated, and at its end, hydrocyanic acid would be released.

The door closed, and all was dark.

Keane didn’t want hydrocyanic acid to be released. Neither did the other physicists. If he died, the whole thing would be for nought.

But if he lived, much might be learned. According to quantum physics, before being observed a particle can exist in two states at once—in this case, decayed and not decayed. Since the poison would only be released if the particle decayed, Keane would be alive and dead at the same time. Before the door opened, that is. But when Mudryi and Katsu looked inside the closet, the wave function would be forced to collapse, and reality would resolve itself.

Of course, this told the outside observers nothing. But what would happen to the inside observer? Would Keane be alive and dead simultaneously? What answers might be given about quantum physics, or about existence itself?

Keane sat with his hands folded, and waited for God.

*

“How long has he been in there?”

Katsu checked his watch. “Twenty-one minutes.” He produced a deck of cards from his pocket. “Do you play Baccarat?”

Mudryi’s eyebrows met. “How can you be so calm?”

Katsu shrugged. He began playing Solitaire.

*

Keane felt like he was in a sense-deprivation tank. How long had he been in here? It seemed like days.

He thought he heard the soft click of the poison being released. His throat constricted, and he leaped for the door, began jiggling the knob frantically. It was locked, of course. They had agreed upon it.

He sat back down, unable to stop himself from breathing heavily. But nothing happened. The particle hadn’t decayed.

Sweat trickled into his eyes, and he wiped it away with his sleeve. He thought of his wife, Adela, and his daughters, Corinna and Olivia. Corinna had just started junior high, and spent more time before the mirror than she did reading school books. Olivia had begun applying to universities.

What was he thinking? He’d taken out life insurance years ago—millions of dollars worth—but money wouldn’t replace a father. A breakthrough wasn’t worth this. Nothing was worth this.

It had been Katsu. He had pestered Keane for months. In person, on the phone. Speaking always of discovery. Speaking always of the greater good. Greater than you, greater than me.

Why wasn’t anything happening? If a discovery was to be made, it should have begun by now. Shouldn’t it?

What had they expected to happen?

And then it struck him. Of course nothing would happen, because Keane was himself an observer. He knew whether he was alive or dead. Just as Schrödinger’s cat would. The whole experiment was flawed.

Adela.

He had to get out.

He began pounding on the door.

It opened, and blinding light entered the closet. Keane’s racing heartbeat began to subside. He stepped out and squinted at Mudryi and Katsu, who studied him cautiously.

“You let me out.”

“The hour is up,” said Mudryi.

“What happened?” said Katsu. His eyed gleamed.

“Nothing. The experiment is flawed.” And he left the lab without another word.

That night, he brought Adela flowers—aniseeds. “What are these for?” she said.

He swept her into an embrace, and her tense shoulders betrayed her surprise and confusion. After a few moments she responded, and he kissed her.

He led her into their living room, where Corinna and Olivia sat watching television. “I’m taking you ladies to dinner,” he declared. “Wherever you want to go.”

They all looked at him, eyebrows raised.

But they would get used to it. This was how things would be, from now on. Too long had his job detracted from his family life.

Perhaps he would get a new job. This one, he decided, had gone a little too far.

*

Katsu lost his fifth game of Solitaire, and Mudryi asked again. “How much longer?”

Katsu looked at his watch, and then at Mudryi. “It’s time.”

Seconds later, the buzzer rang. Casserole’s done, Mudryi thought, and his stomach threatened to expel its contents.

Katsu opened the door and stood motionless, staring in. Mudryi pushed him out of the way.

Keane was slumped against the wall, half out of his chair. Mudryi ran to him and dropped to his knees. He shook him. “Kevin,” he whispered, checking for a pulse.

Mudryi put his head on his old friend’s lap, and wept.

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