Vladimir Nabokov in his 1930 novelette The Eye seems to have anticipated Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment of 1935. According to Wikipedia, it goes as follows:
Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.
Naturally, most people do not entertain the notion of being alive and dead at the same time. Yet in The Eye, the narrator Smurov commits suicide at the very beginning after having been ignominiously caned by the husband of his mistress Matilda. The rest of the story consists of Smurov investigating his own life among the Russian emigré population of Berlin, finding that he is roundly disliked by most everyone.
So, the question arises: Is Smurov alive or dead? Or is Smurov both alive and dead? (Or could the narrator be unreliable, having missed his heart with the revolver bullet?)
In an article in the May 2, 2015, issue of The New Scientist, Douglas Heaven speculates:
For [Physicist John Archibald] Wheeler, this meant the universe couldn’t really exist in any physical sense—even in the past—until we measure it. And what we do in the present affects what happened in the past—in principle, all the way back to the origins of the universe. If he is right, then to all intents and purposes the universe didn’t exist until we and other conscious entities started observing it.
Sound crazy? Then try this one on for size. Another interpretation of quantum mechanics is Hugh Everett’s many worlds hypothesis, which posits that everything that could happen has and does, in an infinite number of universes. Every time you make a decision, the universe splits in two, with you in one branch and an alternative you in the other, living the other possibility. The universe you occupy is, in some sense, an individual universe of your own making.
This idea is enough to give anyone a reality check. “My natural inclination is to be a realist,” says Chris Timpson, a philosopher of physics at the University of Oxford. “But if you’re going to be a realist about the quantum world then you’re left with a world that is very peculiar.” So peculiar, in fact, that the idea that it only exists because of us seems almost sensible.
There now, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether Smurov is alive or dead or both. It all depends on your understanding of quantum mechanics in any universe you appear to be inhabiting at the moment, whatever THAT means!
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