Schrödinger's Candidate?

[ Posted Thursday, September 18th, 2014 – 16:36 UTC ]

[In all fairness, I have to warn readers that this is going to be an awfully silly column. Pondering quantum mechanics always makes me a bit loopy, so you'll have to forgive me.]

In the world of political punditry, the horserace is king. To put this a bit differently: issues and truths are complicated things to report on, while "who is up and who is down in the polls" is a lot easier to expound upon. And yes, I do realize the irony of beginning a column with sneering contempt for horserace-watching the day after I devoted a column to the current Senate horseraces, so I'll thank you to not bother pointing this out. Ahem.

Where was I? Oh, horseraces -- right. Let's give this metaphor free rein, and further state that there are horseraces and there are horseraces... and then there is the Kentucky Derby. In the political world, the presidential race leaves all other political contests at the post. Nothing whips the political chattering classes into a froth more than the biggest race of all. They chase the story at full gallop, starting approximately ten minutes after the previous presidential election is over, in fact, because it is the one horserace that most Americans also love to speculate endlessly about, no matter how much time remains before the next contest. Which means that even though a midterm election looms in mere weeks, there are still plenty of reporters quite willing to breathlessly cover a race which hasn't even really begun yet.

I'm not sure how I got led down the bridle path into all this horsey prose, though, because what I sat down to write about was a cat. One particular cat, in fact. Well, not "in fact," because this particular cat never existed at all (which actually complicates its entire purpose in life... or death, for that matter). The reason I was thinking about this cat (the only way the cat has ever existed is within a thought experiment, I should mention, so thinking about it is really all you can do) was because I read a wonderfully silly and hilarious article written by Jason Linkins over at the Huffington Post. This article might have been written in homage to Charles Dodgson (better known as the thought experiment "Lewis Carroll"), since the entire thing could easily have been treated as a dialogue among some of the more colorful characters in Wonderland (but not perhaps the Cheshire Cat, as a disappearing cat is just going to needlessly complicate my later argument). I highly recommend reading the entire article, but the paragraph which caught my eye was:

The reporters, however, are assembled in that field because there is a candidate, also in that field, participating in the Steak Fry. Her name is Hillary. Hillary is running for president. Hillary is also not yet running for president. Hillary currently exists in a constant state of simultaneously running, and not running, for president.

"Aha!" I thought, "Hillary Clinton attending a Steak Fry (which is not a steak fry, simultaneously) is a perfect political metaphor: she is Schrödinger's candidate!"

[I should warn everyone that this discussion is now going to take a slight detour into quantum physics, but don't worry because there will be no math involved and this will not be covered on our upcoming quiz. Ahem.]

The uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics states that certain things cannot be known all at once. A particle's absolute position or its absolute velocity might be accurately measured, but you cannot measure both at the same time. That's just one example, of course (and there are many competing theories about most of this stuff, I should add, making things even more... um... uncertain). To deal with some of the stranger aspects of such a principle, physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a simple thought experiment:

A cat is locked in a steel box whose contents cannot be observed from outside. In this box is a very tiny amount of radioactive material, and a Geiger counter. In one hour, there is a mathematically equal chance that one atom of the material will decay, or not decay. If it does decay, the Geiger counter will trigger the release of a poison, which will kill the cat. Now -- without opening the box -- after an hour, is Schrödinger's cat alive or dead?

Without even getting into such sidetracks as the many-worlds theory (now an absolute staple of science fiction plotlines), the correct answer in quantum physics is that the cat is both alive and dead -- until you open the box and observe it. The cat becomes a waveform of probabilities, where the values of both "alive" and "dead" are equally possible. The box is opened, the waveform collapses, and the cat enters one or the other eigenstate. It either leaps out of the box and shreds your arm for locking it in there in the first place, or it is time to bury kitty.

Sorry for the graphic nature of the description, but you'll have to take that up with Schrödinger, which is admittedly going to be pretty hard since his particular eigenvalue is definitely "dead."

Hillary Clinton is not a cat. Some might call her catty at times (OK, cheap shot, I apologize), but she is definitely not a feline -- thought experiment or no thought experiment. But she is, currently, the perfect Schrödinger's candidate. She is simultaneously running and not running, as Linkins points out (and that's without even getting into the whole "Steak Fry which is not a steak fry" conundrum, which Linkins does expound upon, a bit). Within Hillary's mind there is a locked box where the decision has been made. She is not going to open that box and let everyone see inside it until January of next year. Until then, pundits will go berserk trying to predict what the box actually contains. Until January, though, Hillary is not a candidate and she is not not a candidate -- she is both, at the same time.

Clinton knows full well the value of not revealing her personal eigenvalue (to coin a phrase). If she started her campaign too early, the excitement of her campaign might fizzle too quickly. She knows how treacherous the path marked "inevitable candidate" is, from previous experience. So she's not going to set foot on any path until there is (at the very least) less time than two full years before the 2016 election. She is smart to do so, because if you think the frenzy surrounding her now is intense (over 200 reporters covered her appearance at the non-steak-fry Steak Fry), just think what it'll be like after she makes her announcement. She won't have the luxury of not needing to comment on every little shiny object that catches the political media world's attention, because from that point on she will live her life under an electron microscope.

Being a mere wave form of probabilities is a lot more comfortable for Hillary, for the time being. I don't blame Hillary for being Schrödinger's candidate for now, but I do look forward to the increasing trips (by the political media) down this particular rabbit hole in the meantime.

[Now how did I get from horses to cats to rabbits? I better just stop writing, and call it a day. Ahem.]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Schrödinger's Candidate?”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    "Wait a tick. Basil, if I travel back to 1969, and I was frozen in 1967, presumably, I could go visit my frozen self. But, if I'm still frozen in 1967, how could I have been unthawed in the 90's and traveled back to... Oh, no. I've gone cross-eyed."
    -Austin Powers


    Without even getting into such sidetracks as the many-worlds theory (now an absolute staple of science fiction plotlines),

    Ahhhh The Multi-Verse theory...

    My FAVORITE sci-fi staple... :D


  2. [2] 
    Bleyd wrote:

    Was that a Sideshow Bob reference at the end of the first paragraph? If so, due to the difficulty and relative obscurity of that reference, you deserve a bit of extra praise. It's only fair.

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    We have a unique opportunity to check.out quantum candidate theory when congress goes on fall break.

    Set up two metal detectors in the Capitol, and close the building off to visitors. Let Hillary pass repeatedly through one of the detectors. After repeated trials, she should leave an interference pattern on the opposite wall.

    Next, remove one of the detectors and repeat. Theory says she should now leave just leave a Hillary sized spot on the wall.

    Finally,, set up two detectors and a security camera so outsiders can watch which detector she uses. Expect spots again.

    Five weeks should be more than enough time. Hoyven Glaven!!!!! Political science !

  4. [4] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    "I do look forward to the increasing trips (by the political media) down this particular rabbit hole"

    Maybe the Supra Universal Consciousness (SUC) will keep them busy mopping up the Synchronicity Showers and mowing the Unifying Energy Field in preparation for the Big Game.

    Quantumâ„¢ be upon you. The Singularity is near.

  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    Quantum mechanics marches on. Having a system be in a superposition of states isn't a matter of whether or not some neo-Cartesian pineal gland has decided to connect mind and matter. It's a matter of the state the thing is actually in, which never has certain characteristics such as an absolutely precise position and a simultaneously absolutely precise momentum. (It's not that it has them and we can't know them.)

    It's very technically challenging to get one atom to be in two places at once. Doing it with an entire cat is essentially impossible, not a trivial result of shielding your eyes from knowledge of whether the cat is alive or dead.

    Note that I'm not anything like an expert on this stuff. Take my interpretation with a pebble of salt.

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