Curiosity and the Cat

An incredible image! The Mars Curiosity Lander captured yesterday by the HiRise satellite above Mars as it came in on its parachute. This is historic!
What a great day!  This was the day the Mars Curiosity Lander successfully entered the atmosphere of Mars in a fully automated braking and landing manoeuvre and landed on the surface, sending back its first picture within minutes.
It was made all the more special because I organised a lunch at a cafe on the Trigg beachfront and four of us, Geoff Mortlock, Geoff Stewart, Steve Johnson and I, had a great chin wag while we watched the landing live on my laptop via my battery wireless modem, with all the whoops of joy at NASA. I admit I even let out a whoop myself.
The remarkable thing was no-one else in the restaurant, out of maybe 40 people, had any interest in what was happening. The lack of interest and  the indifference of people just stuns me. This was history being made, but when I mentioned it to anyone, they hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.
One woman in the chemist actually said, “Oh, and it’s coming back, isn’t it?”, meaning, isn’t the lander coming back to Earth after its mission?  Whaaaat? So ignorant, so dumb, so unintelligent. Most people don’t even know where Mars is, just that it’s up in the sky somewhere.
Anyway, two of the guys had to go after two hours, but Geoff Stewart and I talked the table legs off until 4.30pm. We might have kept going but the rain had set in really hard. Geoff’s had a hard and interesting few years but is still smiling. Life is hard! But we get there in the end, just like the Mars Lander.
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My reference to the Cat in the title is to the famous quantum physics paradox put up by Erwin Schrodinger, referred to as Schrodinger’s Cat.
In quantum physics, all states of reality are postulated to be simultaneous wave functions, the “many worlds” theory. We ourselves are possibly in many states simultaneously, our fate and our decisions determined purely by chance. It feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?
This is a central tenet of quantum physics, that chance determines the way things evolve. True! Of course, some chances are infinitesimally small, but there is a tiny, tiny chance that some atoms of you or me could be on Mars right now, this instant. Or that I might win Lotto tonight.
Schrodinger posited that a cat be thought of inside a sealed box with  a vial of poison gas. The vial may break open and release the gas, in which the cat dies, or it may not. Whether the cat lives or dies depends on whether the wave functions of quantum states in the box collapse into a reality state one way or the other depending on us observing them. If the box remains closed, nothing happens and the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, the vial of poison is both intact and broken at the same time.
But by the act of opening the box and observing, we cause the wave functions to collapse and the vial may break or it may not. Therefore by observing, we determine the state of the cat, whether it lives or dies.
This is purely a thought experiment! We are not actually poisoning cats. No need to ring the RSPCA.
So to have the Lander called Curiosity raised this analogy, and I postulated that only by observing this landing could we collapse the wave function around it on Mars and make it happen. We all had to observe and concentrate, otherwise the landing may never have even been thought of, let alone happen.  Ha!
In fact, even the name Curiosity was a matter of chance, as my other Steve friend pointed out. The question of a name was put up to school kids in the States and Curiosity was chosen from the suggestions of the kids. Wow.