Indeterminacy of Guilt: Schrödinger’s Knox

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2014-01-30 – If you know only the tiniest bit of quantum mechanics (a quantum of quantum mechanics or Q2M), you’ve surely heard of Schrödinger’s box.

Schrödinger’s box is a thought experiment that tests the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics that says that a quantum particle that has the random possibility of being in two states can be viewed as existing simultaneously in both states until it is observed. The act of observing the particle transforms this indeterminacy by selecting one of the two states.

Schrödinger imagined a box with a cat in it (eating a cheezburger, perhaps). A mechanism in the box can detect the random radioactive emission of a particle. Upon detecting this emission, the mechanism releases a poison, which kills the cat. Since the state of the radioactive particle is indetermined as long as the box is closed (pretty weird, isn’t it), the cat can be viewed existing as a “superposition” of two states: alive and dead. If you open the box and observe the radioactive particle, this determines the state of the particle—and seals the fate of the cat: either alive or dead—but not both, which was the case before the box was opened.

Schrödinger’s box has nothing to do with Amanda Knox, but I thought of it today, when the news was released that Amanda Knox was reconvicted by an Italian court for the stabbing death of her roommate when they were students together in Italy in 2007. Knox has now been convicted, acquitted, and reconvicted of this crime.

Could it be that Amanda Knox is actually a superposition of both states: BOTH guilty and innocent—that is, until an Italian court observes the case, resulting in a verdict of one or the other?

And more importantly: Why do we care?

Knox lives in a far-off place. Her crime occurred in another far-off place.

In Chicago, the city where I live, there are millions of people who may be simultaneously guilty and innocent of murder. If you take a trip down to 26th and California—the criminal courts facility—you will no doubt find a number of murder cases pending at any given time. Why is it that I am more interested in the simultaneous guilt-and-innocence of Amanda Knox than I am in the simultaneous guilt-and-innocence of people who are comparative neighbors of mine?

Could it be that the Amanda Knox story has more in common with fiction than the stories at 26th and California? Maybe the Amanda Knox story is simultaneously fact and fiction, in a state of indeterminacy.

And what about the rest of us? What about those of us who have never been charged with a serious crime? Are we all simultaneously guilty and innocent of murder?

When Erwin Schrödinger conceived his Schrödinger’s box paradox, he corresponded with Albert Einstein about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, as expressed in an article Einstein coauthored on the subject (with Podolsky and Rosen). Einstein wrote about another similar thought experiment about an unstable keg of gunpowder. According to Einstein, under the Copenhagen interpretation, the keg would contain a superposition of both exploded and unexploded states.

Just like us, I guess.

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