Whittaker Prize – Round 7 entry

Friday, 12 September 2008

Schrödinger’s Cat – a nuclear fable

Erwin – that’s my human, Erwin Schrödinger – is having a dinner party.

The good news is that because he’s a strict theoretician he can’t be trusted with anything practical and that includes cooking. He’s asked his friend Nils to do the food. And that means there’ll be lots of herring. Mmm, I could die for herring. And Lise’s here, so it’s always worth lurking under the table because her legs are so smooth and soft to rub up against and she’s always passing me little bits of this and that under the table. The other buggers are too lost in their own world to notice the cat.

The bad news is that because it’s one of Nils’s Danish parties it will go on for hours, and they’ll all get horribly drunk and I’ll have to miaow really loud when it’s time to get them out of the way to let me hunt in peace. Still, it’s not as bad as when Bob Oppenheimer does one of his barbecues and they stuff themselves with Hamburgers and Frankfurters and get drunk very quickly. You’d think Erwin would get upset at the idea of barbecuing his compatriots but he didn’t seem to mind even when Bob boasted about barbecuing Hamburg itself, and he got just as drunk as the rest of them. No, Nil’s parties are something a cat can understand. Nibble a bit, drink a bit, sing a bit, play a bit, sleep a bit. Nibble a bit more, and so on.

Let’s see, who’s here? Erwin Schrödinger you know about. Look, he’s got odd socks on, the silly old thing. One black one and one blue one. I don’t know what he’d do without me to keep him in order. I’ve told you about Nils Bohr who did the food. Bob Oppenheimer’s the one with the black leather brogues, which would be very elegant except for his sweaty feet. Phwarr, best keep away from him. The one with the shorts and the hairy legs is old Albert. Somebody should tell him that shorts just aren’t right when you’re his age. Honestly, you should see all of him, including what’s above the tablecloth. Oh, you have already I see. Yes, he’s the old guy with the big white hair and the whiskers and the permanently worried look. Well, you’d worry if you knew what he knew. Albert and I go back a long way. He once…

Hold on, who’s this? Big furry boots. That can’t be right, not in Boston in August. I’ve never seen these before. Let me have a sniff and rub… Mmm, yes, a new one to me. But this will be the one they called Igor, won’t it. The comrade from Russia, or the Goddamsoviets as Bob insists on calling them. That’s all. Apart from Lise. I’ve told you about Lise already, haven’t I? Lise is my favourite, wouldn’t you know. I’ve tried to get her and Erwin together but she insists they can only have a working relationship. Whatever that means. Excuse me a minute, while I leap upstairs and renew my own working relationship with the gorgeous Lise…

Mmm. That gravlax is just divine. Almost as good as the salted herring, and that’s about as near perfection as you can get. And it’s pure silk. Lise’s dress I mean, not the gravlax, although come to think of it that would be an apt comparison. I could have curled up in her lap for hours. I wonder where she got that from? There’s a war on you know. Even if we’re over here in Boston and not getting the shit bombed out of us, times are still hard. It must be a good life being a theoretical physicist in these times. Or maybe it’s just being a very good-looking female theoretical physicist. None of them are smiling much, except Bob who always seem to be smiling about something.

Of course, they started off talking shop. “Shop” in this case being about making the biggest bangs you can. Bob is pleased with himself about making an exceptionally big bang down in New Mexico a couple of weeks ago, but I don’t think he’s being convincing. If he’s got so much to celebrate, why has he given all the roast beef from his smørrebrød to me? Not that I’m complaining, mind, but there never was such a man for eating beef and now he won’t touch the stuff. And he kept going on about how Lord Vishnu had a point. Don’t tell me he’s found religion.

Never mind. It’s amazing what a few beers with akvavit chasers can do to lighten the atmosphere. Just before they were getting silly over a game of Grenzallee. Don’t expect me to explain the details. Humans can be pretty inscrutable sometimes, particularly when they just sit staring out of the window. Who knows what they might be thinking? One might almost imagine that they are contemplating the origin of the universe, or trying to work out the fine structure of matter. And when they play, they seem to get such easy pleasure from the most trivial things. In the case of Grenzallee, they take turns to call out the names of stations on the Berlin U-Bahn, and the one who says Grenzallee first is the winner. Erwin says it’s a game of great subtlety and complexity, and Bob claims that even as a senior professor at Princeton he can’t make head nor tail of it. I’m not so sure myself. I can sort of see it, and of course Lise has got it sussed but she usually keeps it to herself. Until tonight, because Bob was being even more obtuse than usual under the influence of all that akvavit. So one game went something like this:

“Grenzallee!” says Bob.

Albert puts an avuncular hand on Bob’s arm and tell Bob that that’s just not done.

“Why the hell not?” says Bob, “it’s in the rules – first player can always win by calling Grenzallee.”

“But then there isn’t a game,” says Lise, and she looks at him with those big feline eyes in the way she has that always makes Bob back down. Not without a sigh of protest.

“Friedrichstrasse,” says Albert.

“Onkel Toms Hütte,” says Nils. “I love that one!” I saw Bob give him a kick on the shin.

“Alexanderplatz,” Igor growled, as if defending his territory.

“Sophie-Charlotte-Platz,” Lise offered. “A blow for women.”

“Sullivan Square,” Bob says, still missing the point.

Erwin told Bob gently that he was offside, or that he had fouled out if he so preferred. But the akvavit had lit a fire in Bob’s head. “I never wanted to play this goddamn game,” he snarled. “What’s the point of it, anyway? It’s dumb!”

“Yes, Bob” said Lise. “It’s dumb. War is dumb. At least nobody gets killed playing Grenzallee. But it’s just like this war is going. To win you have to call Grenzallee before your enemies do, otherwise you get eliminated. But you can’t call Grenzallee straight away, because that would be pre-emptive aggression. And now we have the Trinity device…” She fixed Bob with a frozen stare.

The room fell into silence. Even through the akvavit fog, all of them knew that she was talking about Bob’s big bang in New Mexico, and I think the implications of it weighed heavily on all of them.

I thought the party was going to break up, then. It was Igor who saved it.

“But now Germany has surrendered,” he growled, “There is no need to use the Trinity.” He’s got a lovely deep voice, has Igor. Rich and dark and yummy, like yeast extract. “We should all work for peace now.”

Somebody – I suspect Bob – must have gripped the tablecloth because I felt it slide away. I braced myself for things falling on the floor, ready to fly, because things falling on the floor generally mean trouble for the cat in my experience. But no such thing happened. Except for Bob, who hissed about how you could bet we needed Trinity still so long as Joe Stalin was still alive.

“It’s time to drink a toast to absent friends,” said Nils. Ever the peacemaker is Nils, must be the Scandinavian blood. This means they’re about to get maudlin. Time for a nap under the table, I think. With half an eye and half an ear open, of course, in case anything interesting happens.

“I wonder how young Werner is?” said Albert. “He was a bright lad. We could have done with him over here. I worry about him.”

“Heisenberg, you mean?” said Nils. “I saw him a couple of years ago, when I was still in Copenhagen. I still don’t know what he was up to.”

“When he wouldn’t leave Germany I was scared for all of us,” said Albert. “Who knows how he might have beaten us to a Trinity device, and then where would we all be?”

“Or he stayed behind to make sure the Nazi atom project was held back,” said Lise. “Werner wasn’t stupid and I like to believe the best of people.”

“You could never be certain with Heisenberg,” said Igor. “You never knew where he was from one minute to the next. And when you did, you couldn’t tell how fast he was going with his thinking. A slippery one, he was.”

“Slippery enough to survive the Nazis, I’ll bet,” said Erwin. It’s all a matter of probability. We have no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, in a prison camp or in a research facility. So in a way he is both.”

I could see the black brogues and the furry boots twitching. From this I deduced that Bob and Igor were feeling sceptical.

“You mean if he’s in a prison camp he’s dead even if he ‘s breathing?” said Nils.

“Well, just as a demonstration, take my cat, Fritz”

Uh-oh. Both my eyes are fully open now, both ears erect, tail twitching. Mind Albert’s legs…

“Suppose we put him in a box, like this.” The legs of Erwin’s chair slid backwards. Oh no. Not the box again.

I was going to tell you earlier, wasn’t I, about me and Albert. Albert was here once when Erwin had just had some new equipment delivered so there were empty boxes all over the apartment and they needed to be explored, didn’t they? And one of them had a spider in it, so of course I had to pounce. As I pounced the box slid backwards, and as I caught the spider it slid forward again. And Albert was staring. “Supposing Fritz was a photon of light,” he said. And from there he got, somehow, to converting matter into energy. And that led to big bangs in New Mexico. Ugh!

So I’m chary of boxes now. You never know what might happen.

So, I’d have been out of the room in a flash if Igor hadn’t grabbed at me with his great big hairy hands. Of course, I hissed and bit and scratched and spread out my legs to stop them putting me in the box, but what could I do? There’s six of them. And then I’m in the box and the lid comes down. Now, I don’t mind the twilight as you know, but I hate total darkness. There was a metal tube in there, too, and a little glass bottle, and a smell of marzipan. I didn’t like it one little bit.

“We have no way of knowing whether Fritz is alive or dead,” Erwin was saying.

Oh yes there bloody is, I thought. I let them know by yowling and scratching on the cardboard walls.

“At any moment, but we can never know which moment, the radioactive sample might decay, and cause the Geiger tube to trigger a hammer which will break the bottle of cyanide which will kill Fritz. And we have no way of knowing if Fritz is dead or alive. So in a way Fritz is both dead and alive at the same time.

“But God knows,” Bob said. Or Yahweh, or Allah, or Lord Vishnu…”

“You were saying earlier that we’d all become God since Trinity,” said Lise.

There was a loud explosion.

Well, I was bloody furious wasn’t I? So would you be if you’d just been shut in a box to prove some point of metaphysics. No way of knowing if I’m dead or alive indeed.

Erwin tried to make it up to me with a tickle and a piece of herring. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that so easily. That’s why he’s sucking at his arm and rubbing it.

So there you have it. They’ve gone all quiet now. Somebody’s put the radio on. Benny Goodman, that’s nice. I like Benny Goodman. Igor is telling the others how Jazz is so decadent and couldn’t we listen to a bit of Shostakovich , but nobody’s taking him too seriously. Not even Igor himself. I think for all he’s been singing all those maudlin Russian songs about yearning for home, he secretly likes it here. He likes Benny Goodman really. He keeps talking to Nils in a low voice about working with him in America, and Bob keeps interrupting.

Now it’s the radio’s turn to interrupt. It’s quite blunt about it. “We interrupt this programme to bring you a newsflash,” it said. Something about the war in Japan.

And a Big Bang.

And you could hear a pin drop. Well, not literally, but you know what I mean. Twelve shoes under the tablecloth, all suddenly motionless.

The tablecloth slid. Igor this time, definitely Igor. A plate crashed to the floor and broke. Investigation yielded a morsel of herring on a furry boot.

Time held it’s breath.

Bob broke the silence. I didn’t like his voice. It was like Erwin’s when he knows I’m going to the vet and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“Grenzallee!” he said.

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3 Responses to “Whittaker Prize – Round 7 entry”

  1. neil h Says:

    I really enjoyed that – lots to think about and plenty of sly allusions to spot.

  2. LindyB Says:

    I love it! Funnily enough, my best friend’s husband is a theoretical physician and he *loves* cooking (all that molecular gastronomy lark). She once used Schrodinger’s cat as a metaphor for statues of the Virgin Mary in medieval England…

  3. tvor Says:

    Excellent! Really held my attention and it worked so well coming from the cat’s POV.


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