Monday, September 5, 2016

Take That, Dr. Schrödinger

When Edwin Schrödinger wanted to illustrate just how bizarre the idea of quantum superposition was, he devised a thought experiment that was based on a cat being placed in peril of its life. Although it was just a thought experiment and never carried out in any laboratory, cats were still rather miffed about the whole deal, when they bothered to care. Which, admittedly, was not very often.

Come 1975, and the cats got their chance to speak out in Dr. Schrödinger's field, as Michigan State University physics professor Jack H. Hetherington included his cat Chester as a co-author of his paper. Hetherington had written a paper for a particular journal and had, following an academic convention of the time, used what's called the "royal we" or "editorial we" to refer to himself when he described his experiments and conclusions. It's a way of speaking that says "we" but refers to the speaker or author alone.

Trouble was, the journal to which the paper was submitted only used "we" when referring to an actual plural number of authors. And further trouble was, Hetherington had the poor planning to prepare his paper in the era of typewriters rather than word processing programs that allow swift mass replacements of incorrect terms. Rather than retype the whole thing, he transformed Chester into "F. D. C. Willard," his colleague and co-author and thus justified the "we" he used.

The paper is the only work included on Chester's curriculum vitae, as most of his other experimental work -- tail chasing, napping, bothering birds and attacking unwary toes -- was not conducted in a format conducive to print.

Chester did, however, suggest an experiment in which Dr. Schrödinger would put on his shoes without checking them first, showing how there was no way to know beforehand which of them Chester had used in lieu of his litterbox. This was not carried out, as the great professor had passed away some 14 years earlier, so Chester returned to his nap.

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