In view of the current tectonic activity at Katla, we offer our readers a repost. Katla has a reputation among some of the disaster crowd, and any shaking there can lead to predictions of worldwide doom. It sometimes seems like a Yellowstone on ice. Hence this story.
Physiology has a dog; physics has a cat. Pavlov’s dog was a sad animal, lying in its cage with wires attached both inside and out, alive but not as we know it. I know – I once visited his lab when the place was still called Leningrad. The dog was still there, or at least a distant successor to the first one in 1902. It was a distressing sight. Pavlov’s dogs were purely animate objects used for experiments. During the siege of Leningrad, some of the experimental subjects were eaten to ward off famine, the ultimate sacrifice to science. But even where they survived, their’s was not a life worth living.
Quantum physics has Schrödinger’s cat. This is an independent animal, never seen but always present and ruling the house. Dogs have owners – cats have slaves. The quantum physicist does exactly what the cat wants but gets no useful data in return. The whole experimental set-up is only for the benefit of the cat. In the experiment, the cat is put in a place where it can’t be observed (in real life, this will be the neighbour’s house to which the cat has secretly changed allegiance). A radioactive atom is put in with the cat, in such a way that if the atom decays, the cat dies, otherwise it lives. We can tell exactly what the chance is that the atom decays: there is a 50% chance that it happens within one half time, which is a known number for each radioactive element. But we can’t tell whether this atom has actually decayed or predict when it will happen. Our certainty only applies to chance. So at any time, we can only say that there is a certain chance that the cat has died, in fact we can put an exact number on it. In quantum physics, this means that the cat is a combination of two cats, one dead and one alive (with any other animal this would be cruelty, but cats have nine lives). Only when we open the place, do we see whether the cat is or is not dead. Suddenly we have one cat instead of a combination of two. And because this is quantum physics, now there has always been just one cat. The dual cat has collapsed into one. It sounds strange, but this is in fact the way quantum physics works. If you don’t know where a photon is, it is everywhere at once. Put two slits in the way, and it will travel through both slits simultaneously – even though there is only one photon. You get interference between the two photon paths and that can be measured. But measure the position of the photon anywhere along the path, and the interference disappears. Suddenly the photon only goes through one slit.
(We don’t actually know whether Schrödinger had a cat. Or rather, whether the cat kept a quantum physicist as a food source.)
Volcanology can do even better than the quantum-physical cats. We have Kat-la. Hekla is a classical volcano: heck when it erupts you’ll know about it. It is undeniable. And with all the wires sticking out from all its instrumentation, it even looks a bit like Pavlov’s dog. Katla, in contrast, is hidden: under its icecap it lies unobserved. It may or may not have erupted. It is Schrödinger’s volcano. Katla is really two volcanoes, one erupted, one not erupted. The seismograph shows a wave function which is a combination of the two Katlas, each with a probability. This is quantum Katla. The wave function will collapse only when the ice opens up and we can see what has happened. This immediately tells us that we have things the wrong way around. It is not that the mountain collapses and this blows off the ice. Instead, the ice blowing off causes the collapse. Quantum volcanology tells us so.
To get a grip on reality, we need a probability enhancer. We need an instrument that makes eruptions more probable. Let’s call it a cat-astrophics (not to be confused with the catastro-physics which predicts the collapse of the Universe.) It takes any volcano in the world, squares the probabilities, and immediately makes it 100% likely that it will go VEI11 and destroy the world (leaving one person alive in order to observe it – any quantum theory needs an observer otherwise it doesn’t know what to do). Then the world is dog-gone, in a cat-aclysm. The goal of VC is to find those people who own one, and to see the world through their cat-astrophics.
A well-known feature of quantum volcanoes is that they do not exist. They are imaginary. That means that the cat-astrophics needs to be used with great care. When used on a real volcano, it causes it to have erupted already, cat-astrophically. When used on an imaginary volcano, it squares it. If you take the square of an imaginary number, it becomes negative. Therefore, mathematics tell us that the volcano becomes negative. That is very dangerous. You never know what a negative volcano will do, or even where it will do it. As Tolstoy wrote, every positive volcano is alike; every negative volcano is negative in its own way. Katla is real, and when it erupts it does so positively. The cat-astrophics can be used safely. But you must be careful: never use the cat-astrophics on Yellowstone. Its coming eruption is imaginary. Square it with the cat-astrophics and it becomes negative. At best, it may implode and take the careless user with it. But it may erupt in the media and remove all reason from the world. It may destructively interfere with global warming and cause global winter: snowball Earth forever. It may cause Yellowstone Traps, covering the entire world under a kilometre of lava. There is nothing a negative volcano can’t do!
The task of the quantum volcanologist is to safeguard the world against negative volcanoes. For this, he or she uses a biological weapon: a square root, also called the squarot. What the elder wand is to Dumbledore, the squarot is to the volcanologist. With this, any negative volcano can be banished and made imaginary. The square root is the neutron bomb of volcanology. It removes all negative volcanoes but leaves all positive ones. Biological warfare with roots.
But make sure it is a square root! A cubic root won’t work. It will create the worst type of volcano: one that is imaginary and real at the same time. It will become a Vesuvius: erupting in reality, and also destroy the world.
Any volcano is a cat-astrophe in waiting. The task of the quantum volcanologist is to keep this destruction imaginary and thus to save the world. Volcanologist by day, superhero squaroteer by night, saving humanity in secret and on only slightly-non-negative funding. Only imaginary harm can come from imaginary volcanoes. That is well-known dog-ma.
/Albert, July 2023 (republished from Dec 2016)