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Carol Culver Rzadkiewicz

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Schrodinger's Paradox
By Carol Culver Rzadkiewicz
Monday, June 29, 2009

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Recent stories by Carol Culver Rzadkiewicz
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           >> View all 8


When it comes to relationships, the odds of survival are one in two, and those are pretty lousy odds.

Seated at a table by the front window of Bailey's Cafe in downtown Atlanta, Sylvia Granger is watching the noonday lunch crowd pass on the sidewalk and thinking about nothing in particular, just this and that, the way a person has a tendency to do at times. She drums her fingertips on the table, glances at her gold wristwatch. John is late. As usual. She looks back at the hustle and bustle beyond the window, and at this exact moment Sylvia recalls, word for word, a definition she once learned for a college physics course:

            The theory of quantum mechanics decrees that there is not one but numerous possible states that may exist simultaneously at a microscopic level; and only when a person actually observes the event--that is, makes a measurement--does one of the states become "real" and, thus, visible to the naked eye.

            Sylvia blinks as she now watches a teenage boy and girl stroll by outside, their fingers intertwined, bland faces glazed with self-absorbed mutual adoration. Of all the things to pop into her head, the Theory of Quantum Mechanics is, in the wildest flight of her admittedly at times overactive imagination, the last thing she ever expected. Besides, it was almost eight years ago that she had crammed it into her memory banks for Dr. Pollock’s dreaded exam. Sylvia now picks up her wineglass. Perhaps, if she had any interest in the subject, she could understand her retaining it all this time, but she didn’t. In fact, in college, she had hated physics. The only reason she’d been in the class was because her advisor, Dr. Gavin, an anal-retentive little man, had told her she was required to take a block in one of the sciences as part of the core curriculum. She could still remember the way he’d smiled—at least what passed for a smile with him—and assured her, “Why, you’ll enjoy physics. It's an interesting subject."

            Draining the glass, Sylvia glances around for the waiter. Yet, perhaps one’s recollection of such an odd bit of totally unnecessary information wasn’t so unusual. Hadn’t she once read that everything people ever learned, each minute particle of information, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was stored away in their minds, rather like a keepsake placed in a cardboard box and shoved into the attic only to be gradually buried beneath an ever-increasing accumulation of junk?    Still, she thinks, the theory of Quantum Mechanics? That was one of those boring facts she could envision staying buried forever. 

            Lighting a Benson & Hedges Menthol, Sylvia takes a drag. Even now she can’t help but shudder when she recalls that physics class. Stupefying dull, on one hand, and hard as hell on the other. Of course, if she hadn’t signed up for it, she might not have ever met John, her husband of seven years now. They struck up a conversation the first day of class, became lovers within a month, and with his help she managed to pass the course. Sylvia shrugs. Yes, perhaps she made a C, and a low one at that, but she had considered it an acceptable grade, especially for someone who possessed no aptitude for math. John, on the other hand, was—and still is—a math whiz, never daunted by square roots or positive and negative numbers, and he could easily solve the most convoluted of equations. But that’s her husband—a man with the functional rationality of a mathematician, although she guess it’s a good trait for him to possess since he handles not only their personal finances but also those of major corporations at the management firm where he’s been employed since graduation. 

            The waiter approaches her table and Sylvia orders another glass of Chardonnay. What the hell, she thinks. I might as well have another. She again looks at her watch. She doesn’t know what it is about her husband and time. Despite his proficiency with numbers, there is real time—the seconds, hours, and minutes depicted on millions of watches and clocks all over the world—and there is John Time, and the two are never in sync.

            The waiter returning, he sets the wineglass in front of her. Murmuring a “thank you,” Sylvia picks it up and takes a sip. If she has to sit here and wait, she is entitled to another drink, and she doesn’t care if John walks in and sees her. She is going to enjoy her glass of wine. 

In her opinion, at times, John can be such an old stick-in-the-mud. She knows how he’ll look at her, curling his lips like he smells something rotten, before he says, “Drinking in the middle of the day is decidedly uncivilized.” He’s said it often enough, even though she has reminded him, just as often, that people in far more refined cultures than their own—Paris comes to mind—consume wine the way Americans do coffee, soft drinks, and even water.

            Sylvia crushes out her cigarette but immediately lights another. Sometimes she wonders just why she failed to notice John’s priggish conservatism when they were college students. Surely it didn’t materialize overnight the moment they wed. Then again, at the time, she was blind to his other faults as well, like a thoroughly irritating lack of spontaneity and incorrigible fastidiousness, to name just a couple. Or—were these same attributes she now found so annoying perhaps why she had initially found him so attractive? After all, as John himself once said, “Unlike poles attract. Opposite poles repel.” He said it, in fact, the first time they made love.

            It was a frigid night, with intermittent snowflakes rustling against the windowpanes. They were sitting together on the frayed Oriental rug in front a space heater in his off-campus apartment and studying for Dr. Pollock’s midterm exam.

            "Every magnet has two poles," he said. "If you place two horseshoe magnets so that the unlike poles are in contact with one another, there will be a great attraction."

            Pretending to listen, she studied his narrow yet aesthetically pleasing face and, though she'd never thought of him as particularly physically attractive, she suddenly had an overpowering urge to reach up and trace the pale scar that puckered the skin at the corner of his mouth and was, as he said, a reminder that he had never been intended even to try out for high school football.            

            His eyes locked on the sputtering flicker of the blue flames, he added, "When you bring either pole of the magnet near a piece of steel, the steel is immediately magnetized with the opposite pole. Thus the north pole of the magnet near the end of a needle causes the appearance of a magnetic south pole at that end of the needle."

            She wondered how he would look nude.

            "The result is an attraction."

            He was over six-feet-tall and almost too thin, bony wrists protruding from the sleeves of often threadbare shirts and sweaters. But he had the chiseled features she imagined belonging to an English aristocrat, or perhaps a poet, given at the moment she was also taking a literature class and studying the works of Byron, Keats, and Shelley.       

            "You know what's fascinating?" he asked.

            "What?" She watched the glow of the flames dance across his skin and decided it could definitely be described as "alabaster."

            "If a bar magnet with a north and south pole is cut in half, the result is two bar magnets each with a north and south pole."

            She shifted her gaze to the fine, dark hair that sprinkled his wrists and wondered if it were as downy to the touch as it looked.

            "And no matter how many times they're cut up, the results are always the same." He smiled. "Two independent magnets, each with its own north and south poles."

            "John," she said, "are you attracted to me?" She had never been particularly forward, but she suspected if she left the matter to him, the subject would never be broached.

            "What?" He stammered, blushing and fidgeting with the textbook. 

            "You heard me."

            "Yes, Sylvia," he said. “I guess I am."

            “You guess?” She took the book from his hands. “So, what if we study anatomy instead of boring old physics?”

            “But the test, I  . . .”

            "You'll do fine," she said, and that night was the first of many spent in the Spartan apartment of a man who never ceased to amaze her with his seemingly effortless grasp of concepts she herself found impossible to comprehend.

            Taking another sip of wine, Sylvia glances back out the window. She often recalls those days, the days when she was naive and impressionable, with a measure of longing. Sighing, she closes her eyes, and as she does, she sees the face of her college physics professor as clearly as if he were seated across the table from her there in Bailey's Cafe.

            His curly gray hair disheveled, myopic blue eyes swimming behind the thick lenses of always-askew wire-rim glasses, Dr. Fuller says, “In the field of quantum mechanics, Schrodinger's Cat Paradox is the definitive study.”

            Opening her eyes, Sylvia then recalls Schrodinger's study just as vividly and effortlessly as she did the theory of quantum mechanics:

            In 1935, Edwin Schrodinger published an essay about paradoxes in the then-new field of quantum mechanics; and seeking to explain the influence of measurement on an event, he created an imaginary setting.

            “In this setting,” Dr. Fuller says in his smoke-raspy voice, “a cat is placed for an hour in a sealed box with a flask of poisonous gas; and inside this box, there is also a radioactive atom, which, if it decays in the course of the hour, will trigger a mechanism that shatters the flask and kills the cat. Yet, with equal probability, the atom may not decay and, thus, the cat will live.”

            Sylvia drains the glass of Chardonnay.

            What is going on, she wonders. Am I on the verge of a nervous breakdown? One step away from being forced to undergo hours of psychoanalysis at the hands of some neo-Freudian shrink who will uncover a lot of other skeletons I’ve kept buried in the attic of my mind along with the theory of quantum mechanics? Considering this distinct possibility, Sylvia once more looks out at the hustle and bustle of Peachtree Street, and as she does, she glimpses her husband.

            Standing on the opposite side of the street, he is frowning at his watch. 

            Sylvia stares out into the shimmering August heat at the man whom she married the month following their graduation.

            Have I ever really loved him?

            She swallows around the sudden white hot surprise of her doubt, as she watches him now study the heavy flow of noontime traffic with his customary wide-eyed trepidation, his briefcase clutched like an ineffectual shield against his chest and his lips pursed not so much in aggravation as in petulance because none of the drivers were willing to stop and let him cross the street against the light.

            It had been John who had explained the concept of probability to her the evening following Dr. Fuller's lecture on quantum mechanics.

            "It's like this," he said, "probability simply refers to the number of times something will occur over the range of possible occurrences, and this is expressed in a ratio."

            She frowned, finding it all confusing.

            "For example, if you play the lottery, the chances that you’ll buy a winning ticket out of the total number of tickets sold is calculated in a ratio. Let's say one in ten million."

            "Lousy odds."

            "Yes, but the chance does exist, however slight."

            "So what are the cat's odds?"

            "What cat?"

            "You know what cat. The one that guy Schrodinger stuffed in a box."

            "Oh, you mean in Schrodinger's Paradox." He shrugged. "I guess the chances are one in two that the atom won't decay."

            "But that means the poor cat doesn't really stand a chance."

            Placing his arm around her shoulders, John smiled, and in a tone she would have found condescending in anyone else, said, "Dear, sweet Sylvia, that poor cat, as you say, isn't a real cat. It's a hypothetical cat."

            "He didn't say that."

            "Who didn't say what?"

            "Dr. Fuller. He didn't say anything about the cat being hypothetical."

            "But it is."

            "How do you know? Maybe this guy Schrodinger actually did put a cat in a box with some radioactive atoms and. . ."

            Turning, his hands now cupping her face, his expression serious, John said, "Sylvia, trust me, he didn't. And even if he had, the cat, like I said, would stand a one in two chance of surviving being closed up in that box."

            "Wait," she said as she pulled away, "a one in two chance is good if you're playing the lottery but for the cat it's a matter of life and death, therefore . . ."

            "Therefore, the cat's probability of survival is just as great as the probability it won't survive."

            "No, therefore, the odds for the cat, who really didn't have any say in whether or not it wanted to be put in that box in the first place, are awful lousy, that's what they are."

            "That's the same thing you said about your odds of winning the lottery."

            "Well, yes," she said. "But for different reasons. A person wants to win the lottery. But do you think that poor, bewildered cat wants that atom to decay?" 

            At that, John laughed and pulled her into his arms, suddenly kissing her, long and hard, so that she completely forgot about the poor cat waiting in a box to learn if it would live or die. 

            Funny, she now thought, but that was the one time—the only time—John had taken the initiative in their lovemaking. And thinking this, she continued to watch her husband as he took a tentative step off the curb and then stumbled back onto the sidewalk to avoid a speeding minivan.

            There were times when she wished he would be more aggressive, and not just in their sex life. If he weren't so timorous, he would have advanced more rapidly at the firm. Instead, he let others run all over him and get the accolades, as well as the bonuses, he deserved. Harvey Kroger, for example, with his obnoxious, overbearing attitude. Always passing the most difficult clients on to John, then taking the credit himself when John came up with a strategy that pleased those clients. And what did John do when this happened? Nothing. Just smiled that one-sided smile of his, his dark eyes looking at the floor and never at her, as he defended Harvey, saying things like, "Harvey means well. And besides, he really does contribute some good ideas, especially when it comes to aggressive investments."

            Bristling at the memory but knowing it contained an element of truth, given John's overly cautious approach not only to life but to the market, she saw her husband let the briefcase fall to his side and glance in annoyance at a tall young man who brushed against his arm as he pushed his way through the crowd of waiting pedestrians. Dressed in a tweed sport coat and faded blue jeans, his dark hair in a sleek pony tail, the man emanated an air of cocky self-assurance and was oblivious to John's disgruntled glare as he stepped from the curb and into the street.

            Even from where she sat, Sylvia could see the smirk of satisfaction on her husband's face as a yellow cab slammed on its brakes, the driver blaring the horn, and the man jumped back. Yet she also saw John's expression melt, like that of a wax figure left in the sun, as the pony-tailed man laughed before dashing in front of the cab and then skirting between a green Suburban and a silver Mercedes to spring onto the sidewalk directly in front of the cafe.

            As she looked out the window and saw the stranger's self-satisfied smile, she suddenly recalled how, in Schrodinger's Paradox, until the box is opened and an exact measurement of the poor cat's condition is made, it exists in two probable states—dead or alive—and the question of the cat's condition is resolved only through observation when one of the possible states becomes real.   

            Across the street, her husband lowered his head, tucked his briefcase under his arm, and like a halfback preparing to charge toward the end zone, stepped from the curb.

            "Opening the box," Dr. Fuller said, "we learn one of two things."

            John darted between a Honda and a pickup.

            "Either the cat is ready to lap up a bowl of milk or to be buried at the edge of the yard."

            Sylvia looked once more at her husband's pale determined face before turning her back to the window. Just as she had told him years ago, those were awful lousy odds when it came to survival.   

 

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