Quantum Kat

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His head hurt. Maybe a few beers could help him. At least they would relax him.
When he got to the bar it was mostly empty—the beauty of an afternoon excursion. He took a stool and ordered a pint. The music wasn’t very loud. The TVs were all showing sports, in which he had no interest. In a corner booth a woman sat with her back to him, reading a book. Her spiky hair rose above the booth back.
He sipped his pint and pondered. The exam was coming soon. He could handle the math through drill, but just couldn’t grasp the concepts. Classical mechanics made perfect sense. How could it not? But quantum mechanics seemed so counterintuitive. He downed the pint in one large draught and ordered another.
For all his preceding life he had thought there are only two possibilities: yes or no. That’s a zero or one. Computers work that way. But the quantum phenomena that help propel them don’t. Not only did things not follow logically, but they could be completely random, could behave like two different things depending on how one looked at them, maybe some behaviors could be explained by particles going back in time, and there was even the possibility of multiple universes. Free will could be an illusion. It seemed a huge burden for a young man. Another pint down, and another ordered. He spun slowly on the barstool, surveying the room.
The woman in the booth had gone to the bathroom, and had left her book splayed on the table. It was Hermann Hesse’s "Steppenwolf." He had read it in high school, and had thought he should revisit it sometime. He spun back to accept his third pint.
This was supposed to be science. It should all be precise and measurable! If only he could find some example he could relate to that could at least open his mind to these complicated, contradictory concepts. He noticed the woman was back in her booth.
He decided he’d had enough frustration, and the alcohol had made him feel sociable. He exerted momentum toward her position.
“That’s a great book!” he said, a little too loudly.
She was clearly startled by his approach, but surveyed him and realized he meant no harm. “A friend said I should read it. I’m not sure why,” she shrugged. Her voice was quiet, but husky.
“Well, anyone who thinks Germans don’t have a sense of humor has never read any Hesse,” he chuckled.
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny so far. I like how the main character seems reasonably angered by things, and then we find out that he’s being ridiculous,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s comforting,” he replied. “Uh, I’m Nick.”
“Hi, Nick.” She gave a weak smile. “I’m Kat. Nice to meet you,” she said, extending her hand, which he took lightly. “What’s your major?”
“Physics,” he said.
“Physics majors are weird,” she said, snarling slightly, enough to jostle her nose ring.
“So I’m told,” he replied, rolling his eyes.” What’s your major?”
“Philosophy,” she replied. “Yeah, I know, it won’t get me a job.”
He shrugged. “An undergrad degree in physics won’t get me a job, either.” They both laughed. “Gotta study what you like. But what I’m studying doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“I get that, too. A lot of philosophy is simultaneously profound and ridiculous,” she smiled again, still tentative. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks,” he said, sitting opposite her. “Like, this quantum stuff … how can something be two different things at the same time? How can reality be different depending on how you see something? How can existence be random, so there’s neither determination nor free will?” he asked.
“Sounds familiar,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe some philosophy would help me,” he said. He looked at her more closely. Something was different about her, beyond the Goth punk look. But his angst and intoxication took over and he started babbling.
“How can light be both a particle and a wave? How can you know with certainty one thing about an object, but because of that not know another important thing? How can the observation of something change its state? How does the nature of objective reality and free will figure in with this?” he rambled.
“You’re getting way out of my element,” she said.
“You know about Schrödinger’s cat?” he asked.
“Sort of.”
“Well, he did this thought experiment to explain Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The idea was to put a cat in a box, along with some poison. There would also be some radioactive material with a 50/50 chance of decay and a device hooked up to a Geiger counter that would release the poison if the radioactive stuff emitted a particle.”
“OK,” she said.
“But here’s where the uncertainty comes in. The cat will be poisoned or it won’t, but according to Heisenberg, until someone opens the box to check, it’s neither alive nor dead ... or it’s both alive and dead.” He focused on her while she thought about what he had said. Yes, she was different. She was quite angular, and her hands seemed unusually large and square, and her husky voice.
She considered, and then replied. “The cat has it easy. It doesn’t have to choose its fate, and certainly isn’t aware that it could be poisoned at any moment.”
Through the beer and his quantum confusion and his eagerness to talk to someone it finally dawned on him that Kat was not binary. She was transgendered, somehow both particle and wave. He must have jumped a little, but tried not to let it show. “But that’s the beauty of it being a thought experiment. It pretty much proves the point without anyone ever actually having to live through it.”
“Too bad it’s not like that for all of us,” she looked down.
His eyes softened, and he waited for her to make eye contact again.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“An answer,” he said.

About the Author: 
Ken Towery has the unlikely degree combination of a BS in physics and a BA in English, and works as an editor. He is a fan of both beer and Hesse.