Schrödinger’s student

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A physics major student was in his room, contemplating his preparations for the next day’s test. He had almost finished all his exams, but the one remaining was the course he dreaded the most: Quantum Mechanics. He had most of the concepts in his head, but the subject itself never made complete sense to him (we have all been there, even if we don’t want to admit it). He was able to visualize all the other theories: projectiles describing parabolic trajectories, atoms bouncing like small pool balls, and charges pulling each other through field lines that he imagined as like tiny springs. “But how can you picture the uncertainty principle? Or what about entanglement?” he recurrently questioned; maybe he was just too much of a determinist.
The sleepless nights finally got to him: he was very drowsy and feeling like not even all the coffee in South America could help him make it through the night. ‘I wish I could just sleep, but there is so much I need to study.’ he lamented, ‘If only there was a way I can do both things at the same time…’. Those words resonated in his head ‘…both at the same time … at the same time…’ he contemplated, ‘… like a … quantum superposition!’ suddenly grasping an idea. That’s it! The solution to his problem! If he could manage to put himself in a superposition, he would be able to sleep and study, two mutually exclusive activities, at the same time. If atoms can be in a superposition, why can’t he (who is made out of atoms)? But how would he be able to make such macroscopic superposition if many scientists haven’t achieved it so far? Maybe they are missing the ingenuity of a desperate student, he thought. ‘If I remember correctly, a superposition happens when two events have the same probability to occur (his words, not mine) so, if I make something that lets me sleep or wakes me up with the same probability, I will generate a superposition of myself’ he concluded. It didn’t take him too long to come up with the design and construction of a simple device to carry out the task (one of the advantages of having an electronics minor). The idea was simple: He will toss a coin with one face covered in insulating tape. He will catch it (without looking at the result) and put it into the device. If the still conducting part was facing down, it will close the circuit, which was programmed to provide a small electric shock once he was sleeping. Otherwise it will do nothing, allowing him to sleep until next morning. He set up his experiment and then lay in his bed with a wire strapped to his wrist. It didn’t take very long before he was asleep, but then he felt a shock that immediately woke him up. He stood up, not sure if his plan had worked, but when he turned to face his bed he saw himself still sleeping. He did it! He had become a Schrodinger’s cat (or rather, a Schrodinger’s human). He rushed to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. He was curious to find out what a human superposition looks like, but before he opened the door, he said to himself ‘Wait, no! What am I doing? If I look at myself, I will destroy the superposition! If I peek inside the box the cat will be dead, and so will I (metaphorically speaking, he meant)! Hold on, how was I able to look at myself before without this happening?’ He stopped to think, ‘Well, I guess a system can interfere with itself and still maintain the superposition’ he deducted. He felt proud of his insight; maybe he had learned something after all. He came back to his room to start studying. He sat in front of his desk, gently moving the chair so to not to make any noise that could wake up his still sleeping part. ‘I should avoid any unnecessary perturbations, or my plan could “collapse” (get it?)’. He was still excited for his discovery, and felt this would not allow him to concentrate in his studies. He then saw an empty bag of chips on his desk. ‘I could do with a snack right now, it will probably help me to think better’ he rationalized. He went to the fridge and saw inside a piece of leftover pizza from four day ago. ‘Should I eat it?’ he contemplated. For an ordinary person, there are only two possibilities: yes or no. But for him, a quantum being, there was a sea of possibilities: yes, no and everything in-between. ‘Maybe if I create another superposition, I could eat the pizza slide and not at the same time’ he pondered ‘this way also I would only get half of the calories’ he concluded; it is clear that he needed to study more. He eventually decided not to take the risk, both with the experimentation and the pizza. He came back to his room with more conviction, sat down with his notes and a pile of books, and then promised that he would not leave the chair until he had memorized all the necessary information, no matter if it takes him all night. The vow didn’t have too much significance, considering the circumstances.
He woke up the next morning, feeling both rested and prepared for his test. But when he tried to remember what he had studied, he realized that he couldn’t recall anything. He panicked. ‘Darn it!’ he exclaimed, ‘I just felt asleep without actually studying!’ realizing that his feat was just a dream. Upset about the outcome of his plan, he started getting ready to attend his test. Maybe it was all a dream, but maybe he was just unlucky and, in another universe (depending who you ask), this same student is ready to get a perfect score in his Quantum Mechanics test. It’s possible, after all.

About the Author: 
I am Diego A. Quiñones, a PhD candidate in Quantum Information at the University of Leeds. I come from Mexico and Physics is my life. I have a passion for Quantum Mechanics, which I consider fascinating because it is so mysterious and some times even absurd.