Vol. 2, Issue 19, May 11, 2004
Education for the Otiose

Schroedinger's Cat: Key to Capital Punishment Alternative?

New York State has a long history of ambivalence regarding capital punishment. However, a new method of punishment may provide an alternative which New Yorkers are more comfortable with.

"It is always hard to decide whether to send a convicted criminal to his or her death," said Governor George Pataki. "But life without parole doesn't seem sufficient in many cases where truly egregious or violent crimes have been perpetrated. Now, we have a new option that should satisfy everyone."

The state eschewed the death penalty for decades, but it was returned to the criminal statutes of New York State in 1995. Since then, however, no one has actually been executed, prompting interest in alternatives.

The new punishment device is called the "Cat Box," named after the well-known thought experiment by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schroedinger. A pioneer in the field of quantum mechanics, Schroedinger reasoned that probabilistic behavior could exist in the macroscopic world as well, even if we are rarely aware of it. He imagined a box containing an atom having a 50 percent likelihood of decaying in an hour, a radiation detector, a flask containing poison gas and a cat. When or if the atom decays, the Geiger counter will trigger a switch that causes a hammer to smash the flask, releasing the gas and killing the cat. When the experimenter opens the lid of the box and peers inside after an hour has passed, he or she will find the atom either intact or decayed and the cat either alive or dead.

"But according to quantum mechanics, until you observe the event, it doesn't happen," noted Pataki. "So during the period before the lid is opened, the cat exists in two superposed states: both dead and alive. Provided you don't open the lid, that seems like a much more palatable solution than outright execution."

"Yeah, I think jurors might go for that," said Monty Carlson, a juror on the Christenson murder trial in 2003, which ended in a deadlock largely because of concern over the possibility of capital punishment. "I don't know anything about quantum physics, but if they say the guy's not actually dead, that's okay with me. I don't mind locking him up with a cat. Unless he was allergic of course."

Critics have pointed out that there are several logical and logistical problems to overcome.

"In the first place, the governor is playing fast and loose with the concepts of subjectivity, reality, and quantum physics," said Judith McTague, professor of physics at New York University. "Even supposing this was possible, which it isn't, providing food, water or oxygen into the box would constitute interaction with the environment within, of course, and thus invalidate the premise. You can't just lock people up in boxes and expect them to remain in some kind of magical stasis."

Others, however, have expressed interest in the device and are waiting to see how it works.

"You know, if you put a budget in there, would that mean it would be neither balanced nor unbalanced until the box was opened?" mused Assemblyman Thomas Perugia. "There may be something to quantum physics after all."

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