SCHRÖDINGER'S CAT
E. Harikumar
Tramslated from
Malayalam by
E. Asoka Kumar
 

Schrödinger's cat

E. Harikumar

 

There was pin drop silence in the class room. Professor Hameed was taking class. He was delivering the well articulated lecture to the students who were sitting attentively in front of him. His inimitable gesticulations and the rhetoric full of imagery never failed to captivate the students. It’s the experience of a life time to listen to his radiant words that get transformed into vivid images. Those images open their wings and fly wandering high across the horizon of the students’ minds. No wonder, even the most difficult of the students are silent in his class. Professor Hameed continued;              

 “British Philosopher C.E.M Joad had once said that our universe is like the grin of the ‘Cheshire Cat’ in the famous book ‘Alice in Wonder Land’. What is so special about that grin? Even after the cat disappears, its grin would linger on for a little longer. Our universe is also like that, isn’t it? How are we to say for sure that it even exists now? Interesting? The glittering stars that we see through a telescope are the light from a universe which existed trillions of years ago. The stars that we see now are no longer there, for they must have already been moved from their positions and some of them even dead. We will be able to see those dead stars only until light from those stars travelling millions of light years reach our retina. But, what is the relevance of Joad’s theory in Quantum Dynamics?”  

“Let’s now talk about another cat; ‘Schrödinger's cat’. Joad was a philosopher; but Schrödinger was a physicist. Both of them were after truth, in their own ways. Quantum Mechanics suggested that the tiny ‘particles’ existed in ‘all possible states of matter’ until they were observed. And they collapse into one set state, at the time of observation. This theory when applied to Quantum Dynamics could be interpreted in such a way that the universe exists only when we observe it. In other words, there is no universe without an observer. Schrödinger narrated a thought experiment to show how preposterous it would be when this theory is scaled up to affect objects in the visible world.”

“Imagine a cat put in a steel chamber along with a tiny bit of radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, a hammer and a capsule filled with hydrocyanic acid, which is a highly poisonous gas. Once the capsule blasts, it would release the poison and for sure will kill the cat. The blast happens when the radioactive substance decay, which may or may not.......”

All of a sudden, the Professor went silent. Disturbing images of a bomb blast that he saw the previous day on TV came to his mind. TV screen flashed images of dead bodies lying all over the place in pools of blood; body parts ripped apart were seen inside damaged buildings and shattered vehicles; bodies writhing with pain of those who were not lucky enough to have been killed by the blast; Stretchers; ambulances; chaos and commotion created by wailing people searching for their loved ones.     

News reader announced; “Eleven people are reported killed in a bomb blast today morning at Nariman point in Mumbai. The condition of twenty eight people is critical and they are admitted in various hospitals....”  

Professor sank in to his chair as if unable to stand on his own. The humming of the class that is interrupted, like the incoming swarm of bees, became louder and sharper. He was still waiting for the phone call. He looked at the cell phone kept on the table expecting a ring any time now so that he could talk to his son. He has been trying to get through to his son, ever since the news about the explosion started flashing on TV yesterday.  

 ‘The number you are dialling is temporarily out of commission’. The computer generated message repeated in three languages continuously. ‘The number you are dialling.....’  in Malayalam, then in Hindi and English.

“What happened to you, sir?” One of the students asked. Professor woke up from his thoughts. Where did he stop?  Yes, he was talking about Schrödinger. A cat is locked up in a steel chamber along with a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that in the course of an hour one of the atoms may decay, with equal probability, perhaps none and a capsule filled with poison........

Professor tried to wipe off all unwanted thoughts from his mind. Nothing would have happened to his son. It’s true that the blast occurred at Nariman point. Just because Abdu’s office happens to be in that area, one need not worry like this. Professor resumed his lecture.  

“If the radioactive substance decays, the radiation through a relay would activate the hammer kept inside and break the vial to release the poison. Then the cat would be killed instantly. However, radioactive decay being a random process, there is no way to predict its happening. As long as the cat can’t be seen from outside of the box, no one knows for sure whether it is alive or dead. After one hour of starting the experiment, an outsider can think of a fifty-fifty chance that the cat could either be dead or alive. In other words, the cat could be both alive and dead. But we know that this is not possible. A cat cannot be alive and dead at the same time. So, how do we know the fate of the cat? Only way is to reach out to the box and open it. Here lies the dilemma of Quantum Dynamics. As mentioned earlier, Quantum Mechanics suggested that particles existed in ‘all possible states of matter’ until they were observed. And they collapse into one set state, at the time of observation only. So, according to quantum dynamics, the cat is both alive and dead until one observes it....”  

 “Like what Shakespeare had said, ‘to be or not to be’.......” The words are broken down; stained with blood they scattered all around the floor unable to join together again. Professor stood there flabbergasted like a child sitting in front of a set of scattered building blocks.

Professor Ramachandran as usual was waiting for him; with a thick book in his hand.  ‘The Continent of Circe’ by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. The History professor had that book with him from morning as it was his habit to keep the book he is reading close to him until he finishes it. Once he completes the book, he would discuss it with Professor Hameed for the next one week or so. History converses with science. Hameed enjoyed such discussions as the culture that churns out of such discussions is magnificent.   

“Any news?” Ramachandran asked. Hameed shook his head.

They walked silently. When they were about to reach the living quarters, Hameed asked. “Do you care to drop in?”

Ramachandran lived in the next block. Nevertheless, without uttering a word, he went along with Hameed. It is not a good idea to leave that man alone now. Both of them were married but families were in their native places. Every Friday evening they take train to join their families, and return to the college on Monday morning.

Hameed kept the tea pot on stove. The ineptitude in Hameed showed while using kitchen utensils; may be due to his present nervous state. Watching his frail hands at work, Ramachandran suddenly felt tenderness towards that man.

“Our children also act irresponsible”, said Ramachandran “otherwise, Abdu could have called you. My son is no different. While travelling once his vehicle met with an accident. It was a minor one though. But you know the media, the news came on TV and we were frightened. He was safe; but, if he had called us it should have been such a relief to us.”

“Abdu is not like that” Hameed said “he is very thoughtful. Even if nothing had happened, he would have somehow telephoned me by now. And that’s worrying me.”

Anything could have happened, Hameed thought. May be he is down with minor injuries. Or he could be one among those twenty eight people who were critically injured, or........?

Ramachandran noticed the change in Hameed’s facial expression. And he said;

“Hameed, don’t let your thoughts go astray. We will somehow contact Abdu.”

Ramachandran sipped tea with a blank mind. He did not have the faintest idea as to how to contact Abdu.

“I will wait for some information today also. If I don’t get any, then I will go to Mumbai tomorrow morning.” Hameed said.

“Has Abdu’s mother called you?”

“Yes” Hameed continued, “I have somehow pacified her; told her that I will phone her up the moment I get some information.”

Ramachandran said, “Let’s go to my flat. I have a new cassette of Mehdi Hassan. While we try to get through to Mumbai, we will listen to some ghazals.”

The Pakistani Ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan was always a passion to Ramachandran. If he finds Mehdi’s new cassettes anywhere, beg, steal or borrow, he would bring it home! Second to Mehdi Hassan, it was Ghulam Ali; then only Begum Akhthar. Ramachandran’s world of Gazals ends there. It is even the end of music world for him; nothing beyond these three ghazal singers. Therefore when guests walk in, they are compelled to listen to these three singers. Hameed likes Gazals; so there is no problem. Secretly he too wished that Ramachandran had  Jagjith Singh, Pankaj Udhas and Thalath Azeez in his collection.

First they heard Mehdi Hassan’s ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’.

“But this is available in another cassette”, said Hameed.

“Yes, it is.” Ramachandran said with a grin. “But this is from a live show; a stage programme. Now be ready for a little bit of a surprise.”

He rewound the cassette and allowed Hameed to listen from the beginning. It started with Naushad Ali, the all time great music director of Hindi cinema introducing Mehdi Hassan followed by Mehdi’s deep voice. He was talking to the audience. His resonant voice was heard like music above the background of Tabla creating an irresistible melody.

Mehdi Hassan was talking of his son Tarique Hassan who was sitting next to him. Suddenly the Professor got alert. ‘Nowadays when I go for stage shows, I take him along with me like a cat taking its kitten to various houses to show them around’.

Cat!

Professor thought of his unfinished class. He hated unfinished classes. Generally he would finish one topic in one class, especially if it is the last period. But today .....

He dialled the number. Again the same computer message, ‘the number you are dialling .....’

 “Is your cousin Rahim still there in Mumbai? Have you tried him?”

“I tried him. His telephone is ringing; but no one’s picking up. Most of the time he is on tour; looks like he is not in station.”

Mehdi Hassan was singing.... ‘Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane keliye aa’

‘Even if you are cross with me, you please come; at least to hurt my heart’

“Nothing would have happened.” Ramachandran tried to console his friend.

Hameed kept quiet. He was thinking of the worst fate, however unpleasant it would be. He had developed that skill over years for his self defence. This habit has helped him to have courage and strength to face any situation. But, can the safety of one’s son so easily be categorised as, ‘any situation’?

“What they are doing is not right” thought came out of Hameed’s throat aloud and all of a sudden.

Ramachandran couldn’t understand; so he asked, “What?”

“I am talking about ‘them’ only! How many explosions are carried out by them till now? Only recently they exploded bombs at Coimbatore. How many people were killed! If all the bombs planted by them had exploded, probably the whole city of Coimbatore would have turned to cinders. What did they gain out of this? Permanent grief for a few innocent families and that’s all!”

Ramachandran recollected seeing Nabeesa, the young mother who had lost two of her children, crying aloud rolling on the floor in a small house in Kadavanthra. She lost them in the Coimbatore blast. The children had gone to spend holidays at their grandmother’s place in Coimbatore. They were playing cricket with their cousins and were searching for the lost cricket ball, when the bomb concealed in a rucksack exploded. All the four children died on the spot. Nabeesa is now a housewife with deranged mind. What did those who planted the bombs achieve? When the image of Nabeesa, welled up with tears in her eyes came to his mind, Ramachandran said aloud.

“People have become insane.”

“Are we not to treat this madness?” Hameed said, “But see what our politicians are doing. It was a wrong thing to demolish that mosque. Sure it has created a big wound in Muslim psyche. I agree, but every wound has to heal, isn’t it? Unfortunately, those with vested interests do not want the wound to be healed. For petty political gains, they rake it up periodically for the wound to get infected and allow worms to wriggle in it. Is that a big issue now for the common man of India; that also after such a long time? Isn’t it having a political aim?  Isn’t it that the people of my community are being fooled; made a scapegoat of? In an issue like this, they should not have supported Pakistan.”

 “The Indian Muslims do not justify Pak actions”, Ramachandran said. “The media are responsible for creating such an impression. Each media has its own axe to grind. All their actions and comments are centred on that. I have seen an article in one such weekly on the 7th anniversary of the masjid demolition. At least the chief editor could have avoided publishing such a venomous feature. For sure they know that media influences the thought process and the mental balance of the general public.”

“People are made to believe that these blasts are in response to the demolition of the masjid. When will they realise that it is a weak alibi and that it’s only a ruse of Pakistan to make our country weak and disintegrated? When will my society realize that they are being made scapegoats of actions that they are not responsible for?”

Professor Hameed was very angry. Far away in a metro city his son lives. Lives? He cannot say for sure. He thought of his daughter. She is in America. She married an American; A Protestant. She has not changed her faith. Nor has he. Without any problem, she continues to live as a Muslim and him a Christian beyond the vicious grip of religion. Professor is proud of that. She must not have heard about Mumbai blast. Even if she had heard, she must not have realised that the blast occurred adjacent to her brother’s office.

Mehdi Hassan was singing. How Professor Hameed wished to relax and enjoy the divine melody forgetting everything else in this world!

Ramachandran switched on the TV and changed channels until he reached a news channel. Same shots came streaming as of yesterday. The death toll has risen to eighteen. The Police have identified the blast material as RDX; which confirms that the perpetrators are the same. No one else need be blamed.

“It is Pakistan only” Ramachandran said with spite. Professor felt some sort of resentment towards him in that spiteful utterance; may be a false feeling though. Hameed realised that such continued and sporadic blasts, the naked aggression towards own country and countrymen, have developed guilt in his mind. It is not his fault; nor that of the people of his religion. But, they are compelled to own the burden of a sin not committed by them; at the same time, paying dearly for that. The scar in my mind is only a small part of the big scar on my society. Oh God! When are we going to get rid of all this?

Mehdi Hassan was singing. The gifted singer’s voice was flowing freely, shattering the boundaries of religion and even that of countries; ballads of everlasting love. He felt deep love and respect for that great singer.  But now he wanted to be left alone. He wanted to cry.

“Let me go home. Just in case someone calls me on the land line....”

“I too shall come with you” Ramachandran got up. And as an afterthought he said. “Or better still, I will come later, after preparing some food. I am planning to make avial curry. You don’t make anything there. Once food is ready, I shall call you.”

“Okay”

After the Professor left, Ramachandran listened to the music for some more time. ‘Phool hi phool Khil Udde’ - ‘Flowers are blooming’.......... Are those buds really blooming into pretty flowers or are they withering away even before they get a chance to bloom? Ramachandran realised that Mehdi Hassan, his favourite singer, has turned a tragedy today.   

Professor Hameed sat as if in trance. He had this gut feeling that something was in the offing. Something connected with fate. Only thing is that he was not sure as to in which mode that would be coming. That isolated enclosure which contained Schrödinger's cat, concealed the secret..... How to know whether the cat is dead or alive? If you open the container, probably you will see the dead cat. How to make sure that you see a live cat? It is interesting to give a lecture to the intelligent students who are responsive about the uncertainty of particle theory. Again, the thought of unfinished class made the Professor unhappy.

The clarion call from a mosque afar was heard. When that consoling voice of love was heard, Professor spread out the mat on the floor and sat on his knees for Salah. And he prayed for a very long time. God Almighty the All Merciful, why do you make me suffer!  

When he heard the knock on the door, Professor got up suddenly. He knew that it was not Ramachandran. At last, is it coming to me? Professor opened the door. There stood the postman in uniform.

“Telegram”

At last!

Holding the telegram on to his hand and afraid of opening it, Professor stood frozen at the doorway. As the heavy moments of uncertainty passed drumming away he saw over the half wall of henna plants his friend Ramachandran coming. 

Suddenly, the land line inside started ringing...........

                                        Translated from Malayalam: By Asokakumar. E

Physicist’s Account of Perception, C.E.M Joad Page 87: (Modern matter is like the grin on the face of the Cheshire cat; the animal has faded away and faded away, until there is only the grin left, with nothing behind to sustain it. Or rather, what is behind we do not know.)

Translated from Malayalam by E. Asoka Kumar