Clem Sunter

Schrodinger's kitten is a fox

2013-10-25 13:10

Clem Sunter

In 1935, an Austrian physicist called Erwin Schrodinger proposed a thought experiment that is famous to this day. It was called Schrodinger's Cat. He played a scenario of a cat being put into a metal box with a small amount of radioactive material and a phial of prussic acid. The configuration was such that if the material emitted a subatomic particle, it would cause a hammer to strike the phial and break it. The cat would lap up the poison and die. There was a 50:50 chance in one hour that the material would emit the said particle.

So he then theorised that if you had not opened the box after the hour was up you could play two equally plausible scenarios: the cat is still alive and the cat is dead. You had to keep both scenarios in mind simultaneously. Only by opening the box could you collapse the two possibilities into one reality and discover whether the cat was actually alive or dead. The two hypotheses become one truth.

At the time, Schrodinger was using this example to illustrate the peculiarities of the quantum universe, namely what happens at the microscopic level. Fast forward to 2001 and that is exactly what Chantell Ilbury and I proposed in The Mind of a Fox on a macro level. His cat gave birth to the kitten of a methodology involving scenario planning, flags and probabilities. We wanted to get across to our readers that, apart from some mathematical and scientific propositions, life is unpredictable until the reality happens. In these circumstances, a fox holds several scenarios in mind, keeps a watchful eye on the flags suggesting which way the wind blows and over time adjusts the probability attached to each scenario. Only after the period is over to which the scenarios pertain can a fox say with a relative degree of confidence which scenario actually played out. Even then, historians will bicker in retrospect over the actual path taken.

The emotional issue of climate change

The reason I am bringing this up now is that a classic example showcasing Schrodinger's cat and our foxy kitten occurred this week. Christiana Figueres, who heads up the UN's climate change negotiations, took the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to task for walking away from a carbon tax. Although she said there was no proven link between climate change and the bushfires raging in New South Wales, her timing was immaculate in its implication. Tony Abbott has since responded that she is talking through her hat, saying that fires are part of the Australian experience and nothing has changed. Meanwhile, Al Gore - the former US Vice President under Bill Clinton - has weighed in on the lady's side and reiterated the point that higher temperatures create a greater frequency of extreme weather conditions and in particular lead to a lethal combination of high winds with dried out soil and vegetation.

The only way to resolve the battle between the climate change enthusiasts and the climate change dissidents is to do what Schrodinger did and we do now: hold two scenarios in mind - man-induced climate change is for real and it is not for real - watch the flags as they rise and fall and give your best shot at assigning probabilities to the two scenarios. Obviously, you have to take into account the potential impact of the first scenario when deciding at what level of probability you start to take action. In addition, you have to compare the estimated cost of the action against the expected return.

The truth of the matter at the moment is that there is no truth of the matter. The cat is alive and dead at the same time, except we are talking about our planet which is much larger that a cat. Furthermore, it will be a long time before we can open the box to establish which statement is 100% true - the one pro or anti climate change. By then, it may be too late. Lest I be accused of sitting on the fence, I will end with where I stand. Like Jonie Mitchell sang, "I've looked at life from both sides now" and the flags in favour outweigh the flags against. Hence, the probability of climate change causing more frequent cases of extreme weather is sufficiently high to warrant immediate action to curtail carbon emissions. The stakes are enormous. And if I am wrong, so be it.

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Read more on:    australia  |  climate change  |  fires  |  environment

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