Anu Pohani

Erwin Schrödinger devised his thought experiment, now called ‘Schrödinger’s Cat,’ for Albert Einstein. Sitting in the lab, Maya imagined the two gray-haired men lounging together during Erwin’s visiting lectures at Princeton in 1935. Sipping iced tea in the shade of a New Jersey oak, they would have discussed the Copenhagen interpretation: that a quantum system remains in superposition until it interacts with or is observed by the external world.  Thus, if one were to place a cat and a vial of radioactive elements in the steel cage, one might suppose there is a moment in which the cat is both alive and dead.

Maya understands that it is only a matter of time before things die. But for her, there is a moment where both being alive and being dead are true. Memory stretches this moment to a lifetime sometimes. Parallel universes do exist; String theory is still alive in her universe.  The Standard Model and its general acceptance be damned. Maya makes her coffee, thinking these thoughts. Karl Marx famously said, the seeds of decay are inside something since its inception. Or maybe they are there even before birth. Her experiment can prove the Marx statement as well.

There was that moment, she thinks as she sips. Sat on a mountaintop, next to him, where she sensed it. She had been afraid for no discernible reason. A beautiful starry night, a fresh blanket of snow, a perfect day. Yet, the fear would not go away. He had known her for but a moment and had followed her (she knew he would). He had said, close your eyes. And she did. Coffee in hand, she closes her eyes, wills herself to remember the cold air in her nostrils. On the mountain, her eyes shut, a parallel future unfolded like a film projected against the inside of her lids. At the end there would be nothing but pain. A searing hot pain. Maya had opened her eyes, smiled at the then near stranger. In that moment of prescience was another equally strong truth. There was nothing she could do to stop what would happen. She couldn’t run. In her observable self were the seeds of her own destruction. There was something deadly. Her skeletal cage held the poison and the cat as well. The warmth of his hand held hers, and she squeezed with all her might. A physicist does not believe in clairvoyance. A moment that comes upon so quickly can be a product of the multiverse theory, but who can say. Who can say a stronger Maya does not exist in a parallel universe? A Maya that does not have a desire to be loved, to be approved of, to chase these things to the detriment of herself. 

Years unfold. They contain happiness, laughter, lust. The mountain vision nags when Maya has an expectation of a smile, a kiss, a hand to hold. The coffee cools and is forgotten. Its particles sink in their suspension. Computers hum. Simulations run. In the multivariate analysis, there is a version of Maya in a white dress. A picture sits on a piano, a woman in a white dress and a man in a suit, bow-tie long removed, smiling at one another. She can feel it as strongly as she can her presence on a chair in front of a screen, watching the numbers scroll down. 

That Schrödinger’s Cat is real, that both its simultaneous life and death are also real, must be proven. UV light degrades radioactive substances, a variable easily excluded when testing Schrödinger’s Cat. Thus, the lab has no windows to the outside. Similarly, a live cat might be tempted to knock the poison over itself. Another variable, which blurs the point at which all possibilities converge. Thus, Maya replaces the cat with a cactus. She also substitutes the steel box with a glass one for easier observation. She encloses herself and the experiment in a steel room. Directed rays from a special lamp replace sunlight to ensure the cactus receives fuel for photosynthesis. Maya doesn’t need to complete the experiment. Her faith in the multiverse is absolute, despite people’s efforts to disprove it. To disprove her. She turns her back on the cactus.

At home, she hangs up her delicates on the clothes horse. The white and blue cage in the living room, draped with things she prefers not to display. She looks up to see him, staring.

“What’s up?” she says, smiling.  

He replies, “Shall we get a take-away tonight?”

In her mind, a moment opens, like a box. Inside he says,

“I’ve slept with someone else.”

Later that night, lying in bed, Maya grapples with which to believe. Perhaps not one bit of the sentence the Him in the box said had occurred in the observable universe, neither confession nor sexual act. Or, he is having sex with someone else, but said nothing. Or, he holds a confession in his heart which he articulated but she pretended not to hear. She reaches a hand to his back. In reality, they order Thai food and watch one of those situation comedies that continues for a few seasons too many. If only one could simulate all the outcomes. If Maya could know all the variables, all their measurable values, she could input them into her computer. She strokes the computer with affection, thinking of how it might avert pain. Without pain, there is no knowledge, without death, there is no Experiment. Despite pain, despite suffering, the months and years will be worth it.  

Their breakup is nothing if not mundane. However, there is nothing quotidian about the nightly feeling. Despite sleeping alone in an empty bed, each night somewhere between one and four a.m., for a full moment before waking, she feels him lying next to her. He drapes his arm across her midsection. A complete cycle of observations takes several moments: temperature, count of bodies, time on the clock, date on the calendar. Maya positively identifies that he isn’t there, and hasn’t been for years. Maya turns to the digital lab clock, another observation reading of the cactus and the Geiger counter feeds into the program. The computer is far more accurate, especially since the cat has been replaced. Watching for the moment a cactus dies is impossible for the human eye; Science must provide the answer. Maya imagines opening the glass chamber, replacing cat or cactus. What if she could exist and not exist at the same moment? Would the knowledge be worth the pain? She shakes her head to dismiss the thought, sad but not suicidal. Yet, just like the other moments, it sticks with her. What if she could exist in one plane and not in the other?

In the observable universe, the poison will kill her, but there is a measurable moment in time where she is both dead and alive. Surely that is the point of the experiment. To create a split universe of existing and non-existing, even for a moment. She looks at her phone, scrolls through sad, old messages. They are marked with dates and time stamps so far in the past that she invites a parallel universe to exist inside of her. These moments occur within her, again and again.  

Data arises, the computer alerts her to its completion of the day’s observations, analysis, and synthesis. As usual, there is nothing conclusive, but tantalising and confusing. Hours, days, and years churn through. Cacti after cacti are subjected to the experiment. Each time, the cactus dies. Each time, the computer fails to identify a single measurable moment where the cactus is alive and dead. Sometimes it records several, sometimes none at all, yet the death of the cactus is preordained. Maya knows deep in her bones that the pursuit of the truth is worthy. Typing endlessly, finding a retro-fit with mathematics and theory feels like putting order in the cosmos. She hopes for a singular answer like Decay Start: 12:59:00 EST. Decay Duration: 35 seconds. Death: 12:59:35 EST. Reaching the end of the day, Maya dons a hazardous materials suit to take apart the experiment. She throws the container with the unstable materials into the safe bin.  She throws the cactus in there as well. She wipes down the Geiger counter and glass with the special surfactant wipes. Finally, she removes the hazardous material suit, and steps back into the observation room. All of her personal belongings, including her phone, are left outside this room.  For eight hours a day, she is cut off from light, from people. She likes it. She chooses it. She will build it back up again tomorrow, she thinks, looking at the wall of cacti behind her. The experiment is run at night when vibrations from traffic and overhead planes are non-existent. No extra variables that cannot be accounted for. She keeps odd hours, emerging from the building at six a.m.  

Working at the university is just like that. A place that catered to every need, food, exercise, and sleep. In a specially requested dorm room, with an ensuite bathroom, she showers all the indoor-ness away. Maya puts her bathing suit on under her clothes and gets on her bike. At the campus canteen she picks up a strained yoghurt, a pack of almonds, and an apple. From the coffee bar, another coffee, and some cinnamon for the yoghurt; She picks a protein bar for after her swim. For as long as she works on Schrödinger’s Cactus, she can eat the same breakfast. Maya swims one kilometre every day. Four hundred metres freestyle, two hundred metres intermediate medley, two hundred metres freestyle, two hundred metres breaststroke. She is enclosed in water enclosed in concrete. Concrete is too porous for the actual experiment. She pulls herself out of the pool. The pool is in darkness, in the basement of the fitness centre. In mid-afternoon, she returns to her single bed. Just before falling asleep she feels the edges of the bed. No room for anyone else. To clear the outdoor-ness, she reads the free novels offered by her eReader, a universe where the characters change, but the stories remain the same. Still, she sees the variants, red hair, brown hair, blue eyes, green eyes, murder by poison, murder by gun, mysteries that resolve in patterns. Surprises without surprises. A single bed, in a single box, in a single building; She observes her simultaneous life and death, over and over again.

About the Author

I am an Asian-American expat living in London. I graduated with an Economics major, and an English concentration.  With 20 years neck deep in numbers, haplessly mothering two children, I am grateful for the pivot back to right-brain pursuits.  My essays and short stories have appeared in Caustic Frolic, Under the Radar and Angel City Review, among others. I can be found on Twitter @AnuPohani. Please feel free to include me on your social media feeds.