The Cat Is In The Library?

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Professor Quentin McTavish, Head of the Library of Quantum Theory, started guiltily and shoved the rest of the packet of biscuits into his desk drawer. “What is it, Ms Reeves?” Looking up at her, he observed that her eyes were red and watery. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes,” said, or rather sniffed, Ms Reeves. “It’s just that — I think that cat might be in the library again. You know I’m allergic to them.”

“That cat?” Professor McTavish frowned. "Oh yes. That cat. Yes, indeed.”

The cat in question, Max, was a keen user of the library. Sadly Max was unable to read, and therefore was unaware of the notice on the door barring him from entry. The staff had shooed him out many times, but he always returned (unlike some of their choicest volumes).

“Have you looked for him?” asked the Professor.

Ms Reeves nodded. “We all have, but we can’t see him anywhere.”

“That surprises me,” the Professor mused. “You ought to know better, Ms Reeves. In a place such as this, the act of looking for the cat may well summon him. Tell everyone to stop it immediately.”

Ms Reeves blushed. “Of course, Professor,” she said, and with a final sniff, hurried out.

The Professor pondered an experiment. If they locked the library doors and released a clockwork mouse, then surely Max the cat would reveal himself, if he were present. And as it happened, this universe was one where the Professor had a clockwork mouse in his pocket. However, there were drawbacks to this plan. Firstly, the library was very large, with multiple areas including a labyrinthine storage zone. Max could easily have left an area by the time the Professor arrived to perform that iteration of the experiment. In addition, if Max wasn’t in the library, then waiting for him to appear in the locked building might result in the death of everyone within, since the library was not equipped with a cafeteria or vending machines.

“Aha!" cried the Professor, and went to the front desk, where Ms Reeves was busy not looking for Max.

“I think I have a solution to the question of whether or not the cat is in the library,” he said.

“Well, Professor McTavish,” said Ms Reeves, somewhat testily, ‘there are only two possibilities: yes or no.’

“Or are there?” asked the Professor. “You see, at present the cat both is and is not in the library. The real answer is yes and no.”

Ms Reeves sighed. It had been a long day. She had spent much of it sending letters in respect of books which the Professor refused to designate as ‘missing,’ preferring the term ‘other than where we would expect them to be in the course of what we see as a normal borrower-lender relationship’. The printer had already run out of ink twice.

“So,” she said, leaning on the counter wearily. “If we admit the fact —”

“In this universe,” the Professor interjected.

“In this universe,” she acknowledged. “Given that I am allergic to cats, and that I am currently displaying the symptoms of that allergy, what are you going to do about it?”

“Well,” said Professor McTavish, putting his hands in his pockets, “since there are an infinite number of parallel universes, we can say that Max is everywhere. And also nowhere, obviously. That makes choosing any course of action rather difficult.”

Ms Reeves resisted the impulse to bang her head on the desk, and sneezed instead.

“However,” the Professor beamed. “This happens to be a universe where I have in my pocket not only a clockwork mouse,” — he produced it with a flourish — “but also a pack of antihistamine tablets. One of those should do the trick.”

Professor McTavish put the pack of tablets on the counter and drifted back to his office. He had important work to do on the probability-based shelving system he was planning. "Once I get this fully operational, it will be wonderful,” he said to himself, retrieving the biscuits from the top drawer of his desk. "The books most in demand will be on the front shelves of the library. Since they are so likely to have been borrowed, and so easy to find, hardly any of them will be there! Imagine the light and space!”

In the darkest, warmest part of the library, an imaginative observer might have seen a flash of two opaque green lights just like a cat’s eyes. However, given the infinite number of possibilities, it could have been anything at all.

About the Author: 
Liz Hedgecock spends much of her time hopping between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, murdering people. Luckily this is only on the page, and she does usually clean up after herself. Find out more at, or tweet @lizhedgecock.