It’s an ingenious way of linking an outcome in the classical world, our world, to a quantum-level event.
The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests a crazy thing: before the box is opened, before observation occurs, the atom exists in superposition—an undetermined state of both decaying and not decaying. Which means, in turn, that the cat is both alive and dead.
And only when the box is opened, and an observation made, does the wave function collapse into one of two states.
In other words, we only see one of the possible outcomes.
For instance, a dead cat.
And that becomes our reality.
But then things get really weird.
Is there another world, just as real as the one we know, where we opened the box and found a purring, living cat instead?
The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics says yes.
That when we open the box, there’s a branch.
One universe where we discover a dead cat.
One where we discover a live one.
And it’s the act of our observing the cat that kills it—or lets it live.
And then it gets mind-fuckingly weird.
Because those kinds of observations happen all the time.
So if the world really splits whenever something is observed, that means there’s an unimaginably massive, infinite number of universes—a multiverse—where everything that can happen will happen.
My concept for my tiny cube was to create an environment protected from observation and external stimuli so my macroscopic object—an aluminum nitride disc measuring 40 µm in length and consisting of around a trillion atoms—could be free to exist in that undetermined cat state and not decohere due to interactions with its environment.
I never cracked that problem before my funding evaporated, but apparently some other version of me did. And then scaled the entire concept up to an inconceivable level. Because if what Leighton is saying is true, this box does something that, according to everything I know about physics, is impossible.
I feel shamed, like I lost a race to a better opponent. A man of epic vision built this box.
A smarter, better me.
I look at Leighton.
“Does it work?”
He says, “The fact that you’re standing here beside me would appear to suggest that it does.”
“I don’t get it. If you wanted to put a particle in a quantum state in a lab, you’d create a deprivation chamber. Remove all light, suck out the air, turn down the temperature to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. It would kill a human being. And the larger you go, the more fragile it all becomes. Even though we’re underground, there are all sorts of particles—neutrinos, cosmic rays—passing through that cube that could disturb a quantum state. The challenge seems insurmountable.”
“I don’t know what to tell you….You surmounted it.”
Leighton smiles. “Look, it made sense when you explained it to me, but I can’t exactly explain it back. You should read your notes. What I can tell you is that box creates and sustains an environment where everyday objects can exist in a quantum superposition.”
Though everything I know tells me it’s impossible, I apparently figured out a way to create a fertile quantum environment at the macro scale, perhaps utilizing the magnetic field to couple objects on the inside to the atomic-scale quantum system.
But what about the occupant inside the box?
Occupants are observers too.
We live in a state of decoherence, in one reality, because we’re constantly observing our environment and collapsing our own wave function.
There has to be something else at work.
“Come on,” Leighton says. “I want to show you something.”
He leads me toward a bank of windows on the side of the hangar that faces the door to the box.
Swiping his keycard at another secured door, he shows me into a room that resembles a com center or mission control.
At the moment, only one of the workstations is occupied, by a woman with her feet kicked up on a desk, jamming out to a pair of headphones, oblivious to our entry.
“That station is manned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We all take turns waiting for someone to return.”
Leighton slides in behind a computer terminal, inputs a series of passcodes, and dives through several folders until he finds what he’s looking for.
He opens a video file.
It’s HD, shot from a camera facing the door of the box, probably positioned right above these windows in mission control.
Across the bottom of the screen, I see a timestamp from fourteen months ago, the clock keeping time down to a hundredth of a second.
A man moves into frame and approaches the box.
He wears a backpack over a streamlined space suit, the helmet for which he carries under his left arm.
At the door, he turns the lever and pushes it open. Before stepping inside, he looks back over his shoulder, straight into the camera.
I wave, step into the box, and shut myself inside.
Leighton accelerates the playback speed.
I watch the box sit motionless as fifty minutes races by.
He slows the video back down when someone new emerges into frame.
A woman with long brown hair walks toward the box and opens the door.
The camera feed switches to a head-mounted GoPro.
It pans the interior of the box, a light shining across the naked walls and floor, glinting off the uneven surface of the metal.
“And poof,” Leighton says. “You’re gone. Until…” He fires up another file. “Three and a half days ago.”
I see myself stagger out of the box and crash to the floor, almost like I was pushed out.
More time elapses, and then I watch the hazmat team appear and hoist me onto a gurney.
I can’t get over how entirely surreal it feels to be viewing a playback of the exact moment when the nightmare that is now my life began.
My first seconds in this brave, new, fucked-up world.
One of the sleeping quarters on sublevel one has been prepared for me, and it’s a welcome upgrade from the cell.
A desk with a vase of fresh-cut flowers that have perfumed the entire space.
Leighton says, “I hope you’ll be more comfortable here. I’m just going to say it: please don’t try to kill yourself, because we’re all on the lookout for it. There will be people right outside this door to stop you, and then you’ll have to live in a straitjacket in that disgusting cell downstairs. If you start feeling desperate, just pick up the phone and tell whoever answers to come find me. Don’t suffer in silence.”