Schroedinger's Catflap, and other unintended consequences

Having pondered for some time on this issue, I wondered whether the concept of Schrodinger’s catflap had any meaning.  The famous 1930’s thought experiment, designed to illustrate conceptual problems of particle physics, seems to have entered the popular imagination, at least in some circles.  After extensive research – well, I looked at a page on Wikipedia – I don’t think anyone has contemplated the possibility of a catflap phenomenon, though novelists have looked at aspects such as Schrodinger’s cat sitter.

The original experiment, if I understand it right, is that a cat is in a sealed box, with a hammer and a vial of cyanide connected to a random button on the outside.  If one button is pressed, the cyanide is, or isn’t, activated. The cat is either alive or dead.  However, the suggestion was that certain sub-atomic particles enter a third condition; which in the metaphorical cat’s case would be neither-alive-nor-dead-ness. Herr Schrodinger wasn’t impressed – the cat was a comic way of dealing with the problem.

My own little thought-experiment, as part of thinking about creative process, comedy, clowning and the like, was to think that if Herr Schrodinger HAD a cat, then it is likely he’d have a catflap. But since the cat is a metaphor anyway, then the flap is also a metaphor. But for what? I realised, crucially, the flap would have to be in the box itself.  We now have four conditions, rather than Schrodinger’s three (with all respect, ignoring Terry Pratchett’s equally comic suggestion of “Bloody Furious”). These would be: 1) Alive 2)Dead 3) Alive-or-dead 4) Gone out to chase small birds, without anyone knowing.

Bingo.  Here we have it.  The mystery solved.  What the cat-flap represents is the condition which actually is at the heart of clowning – the arrival of some totally unexpected turn of events which completely mess up the nice orderly plan. It is a comic version of the Uncertainty Principle, but applied to everyday life.  The nearer analogy is the Law of Unintended Consequences, closely related to phenomena such as Sod’s Law and Murphy’s Law. Perhaps the most interesting example is what has become known as the Streisand effect – if people try to ban information, it only becomes more well-known.

In fact, in theatre we are used to dealing with unintended consequences.  Not for some time have we used a formal pre-planned blocking unless rehearsal time was very short.  The whole notion of rehearsal has been to open the imagination up to other possibilities.  “Right, let’s just try this, and see what happens …… “.  Rehearsal is a cyclical process, some of which is about creating deep learning, but also looking out for happy accidents, serendipity moments.  Crucially, although one can prepare for these realisations, they are, by their nature uncontrolled.  And this is part of their beauty. The ability to recognise and make use of unplanned outcomes is at the heart of creativity, and skills needed by modern economies.

Which doesn’t preclude the notion that, like Schrodinger’s clever cat, that the damn thing will just get away from you when you’re not expecting it.

3 thoughts on “Schroedinger's Catflap, and other unintended consequences”

  1. I must put up my hand to unconscious plagiarism here. As “Dirk Gently” reaches the small screen, I’ve realised that I’d picked this idea up from Douglas Adams. I suspect I’ve picked up many ideas from Douglas Adams. Including the fundamental interconnectedness of everything, of course.


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