The Quantum Volcanologist

Two cats (one live, one dead) and a volcano.  Photo by Giorgos Katsavos

Two cats (one live, one dead) and a volcano. Photo by Giorgos Katsavos

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 have been in his lab when the place was 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 of famine, the ultimate sacrifice to science. But even where they survived, their’s was not a life worth living.

Quantum physics has Schrodinger’s cat. This is an independent animal, never seen but always present and ruling the roost. 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 purely 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 Schrodinger had a cat. Or rather, whether the cat kept a quantum physicist as food source.)

Volcanology can do even better than these 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 Schrodinger’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 to invent an instrument that makes eruptions more probable. Let’s call it a cat-astrophics. 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 already have invented one, and to see the world through their cat-astrophics.

Cat-astrophic - use with care. Oops!

Cat-astrophic – use with care. Oops!

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 squarrot. What the elder wand is to Dumbledore, the squarrot 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.

The squarrot, weapon of choice of the quantum volcanologist

The squarrot, weapon of choice of the quantum volcanologist

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 squarroteer 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.



94 thoughts on “The Quantum Volcanologist

  1. Thank you Albert, even though I feel a little bothered by those poor dogs,
    I while back I asked if anyone remembered a movie with a cockatoo and an erupting volcano,
    well I finally found it, I was wrong about the date, it seems to be 2005,

    It is not a movie but a docudrama, even though the Cockatoo didn’t fare so well, it is a huge relief to find
    this documentary that I only saw part of. It was not a dream 😀

  2. It feels good to know that I am not the only one in the World who applies quantum physics to volcanoes… 🙂
    For those who are not into quantum physics, this is how the universe actually operates on the minute (quantum) scale. It does though render hilarious results when applied on macro-scale.
    At the same time this piece really put into perspective the problems of seeing if a Kat-la volcano is really erupting or not, it is Always a percentages game until we get accurate data.

    And now I am off chuckling like a madman.

    • Glad to hear. I hope this will help you recover the missing memories. We know what you did last summer – super-Carl, fighting volcanic negativity in all its forms.

  3. Thank you Albert. Thanks you. Just what this mornings tender head needed 🙂

  4. enjoyed the article-had an old friend who who was a physicist, and had a
    Cat – cat’s name was Schrodinger, and a dog named Newton.
    The family Budgie’s name was Einstein…
    Einstein ran afoul of Schrodinger, however..

  5. There has been some shaking over at Kilauea and Mauna Loa. We have 3.7, 3.4, 2.9 near Kilauea and most recently a 2.4 at 3.2 km at the summit of Mauna Loa. Usgs has reviewed the events and shows the 3.7 as a 3.8.


    • The Kilauea quakes are not on the magma path. They are on the edge of the steep cliff and probably indicate slippage. Mauna Loa’s peak has been deflating for the past week or so. Not sure what happened there.

      • The MSLP summit vertical motion has not been reporting for days. The cross caldera is reporting and the tilt is working though??

  6. Saturday
    17.12.2016 16:46:26 63.649 -19.136 1.2 km 3.3 99.0 5.7 km E of Goðabunga

  7. Well that certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons Didn’t it. What puzzles me at the moment is where these quakes are going. At first they were confined to one place then later they went west and are now moving east and maybe north east. This could be something or a black cat . (Swan ?)

  8. Just saying a huge storm to Iceland next days with lowest pressure of 950hPa passing on Icelandic south coast by 20 December…

    • Strong? Yeah, but I don’t know if I would call it huge. Gale force winds at 925 hPa never get above 200 km radius.

      • In fact, it seems to loose a lot of “oomph” as it passes the tip of Greenland and reverts to a cold core low. But, the south coast of Iceland will have 45+ kph winds coming in from the south.

        • Carl once saw a flying sheep.

          Once I saw a flying tree when I lived in Iceland.
          That is a horizontal flying 2 meter trunk like a missile.

          I could have died if quantum mechanism gone terrible that day.

          Iceland has storms. When you stay inside the house, they are quantum mechanisms. You hear a noise but you can´t be sure of what it is until you open the window.

          If a wind blows 200kmh then its a common winter storm.

          If no wind blows, then it was one of the M5 caldera collapse earthquake that just happened.

          These were my days….

          Also when I hiked Hekla it was really quantum cat´s.
          On the end of the day, there was a dead irpsit, and a surviving one. I couldn´t know for sure beforehand.
          I would have to hike the naughty Hekla to find it out which state awaited me.

          • Anyone else getting quantum-confused? I think there’s mew (pun intended!) much of this! I think I just discovered quantumfurballbrainitus! 😛

          • But like Pavlov’s dog, when you see Hekla there is the insuppressible urge to climb it. Dead or alive.

  9. According to my calculations, the complete destruction of Earth would be a VEI17. A VEI16 would barf out a Moon-sized chunk of it, and a VEI11 would just repave a continent or two, though it would probably also screw up the atmosphere severely enough to render it uninhabitable to higher life-forms for a while.

    Also, on the topic of quantum physics, the cat doesn’t actually “collapse” into just one state — the two states go their separate ways, along with two versions of the observer, each seeing just one state of the cat afterward. The basic math of the wavefunction says as much, and to get just one version of history out and nix the others actually requires grafting extra things onto the theory — worse, it requires grafting on *untestable* things. Pilot waves, FTL signaling, a “collapse” operator that’s nonunitary and triggered when some arbitrary size or mass threshold is exceeded, or etc.

    • “and to get just one version of history out and nix the others actually requires grafting extra things onto the theory”

      Wouldn’t that also imply that the other states exist in an alternate reality once the function collapses to the state present in this reality?

      Hello multiverse!

      • I will here have to state that both you and Albert are right and wrong at the same time.

        The double-slit experiment yields several theories.
        Albert used the most common, the Copenhagen model of the Universe.
        FD is using a simplifed version of the Feynman-interpretation of the Copenhagen model of the Universe that is not entirely correct.

        The Feynman version states that the cat will travel every single way possible between the cat-emitter and the sensor grid. Or, in other Words, there are infinite amounts of (potential) cats.
        This version breaks down into 3 different sub-interpretations.
        1. The Feynman interpretation of the Feynman interpretation where the infinite amount of cats will fall together into just one cat when it reaches the sensor grid. This is also called the weak interpretation.
        2. The Whelan-interpretation of the Feynman interpretation. This is the one where there are infinite amounts of cats travelling infinite ways and that when it hits the sensor grid an infinite amount of different universes will be born. This is known as the strong interpretation, or the Multiverse-model. Neither Feynman nor Whelan believed this one.
        3. The Rehnberg-intepretation of the Whelan-interpretation of the Feynman-interpretation of the Copenhagen model of the Universe. (longest theory title known to man). This states that there is only one cat in all of the Universe and that the cat is travelling all possible ways at the same time, thus being all cats in the Universe at the same time. As the cat reaches the sensor grid it will be at only one spot there, but at the same time it will be all cats everywhere making the cat able to be locationed in all cat-spaces of the universe at the same time. This sub-interpretation sent Fredkin drinking since he could not say it was wrong, or even “wronger”, than the others. It also neatly explains the temperature of the Universe and opens up for the universe being an information singularity. I never published it since it made people chuck bananas at me and since there was a risk that I would push all quantum physicists into an alcoholic stupor.

        • That is the uncertainty principle. Any theory can be right as long as it exists only very briefly.

          • What created an undying love for quantum Dynamics in me is that there can be several correct interpretations at the same time.
            Quod Erat Demonstrandum sunt Quantum Electro Dynamics. (Now running rapidly away to hide again Before I postulate that EM drives are just manipulating quantum foam).

          • Actually, I’m with you on the foam idea. It makes up for the lack of a propellant mass.

            … I’ll stick to the certainty of Black Swans occurring. LLN makes it so. You just have to wait long enough.

            For example, the Kali Boulder shown above, has some background info on it here. It’s dated to 1681. Using the other dates from that article of large quakes in Nepal in the Mag 8.0 range, I get an average recurrence interval of 193.6 years, with a 95% conf interval of 48 to 339 years. 1681+339 = 2020, so you would expect something that large to probably occur by then. Sure enough, in 2015, there was a M 7.8 quake in Nepal. Pretty much right on schedule. Could it be predicted? No, not at all. Was it likely? Yep. Why no on the predicting bit? Because when and how a particular section of rock will fail is really hard to determine. You might be able to measure built up stress, but knowing at what point it will fail is problematic. You have to know everything there is about the system and you could still get it wrong. The best bet is to either not be there, or to have your infrastructure set up to deal with it if and when it does.

        • are both the infinities the same size in the longtitle interpretation ? if you can ‘count’ more/less cats than there are cat space universe interactions then that might make it wronger. (going forth to get myself some coffee)

    • The energy required to unmake the Earth is 0.6 G M^2/R, or a tad over 2 x 10^32 J. That is roughly the entire energy output of the Sun over 600,000 year. Krakatoa produced around 10^19 J. Some way to go. The VEI scale goes for ejecta volume, and indeed aVEI17 would eject the entire Earth.

  10. Love it Albert.
    There is a good argument to be made that the universe, that ultimate volcano, does not exist at all; never has and never will; and what we experience as existence are merely chains of binary logic within a state of all potential that is the result of the paradox of the existence of an absolute void; thereby being something other than absolutely nothing at the same time.
    To come into existence, the mass and energy of the universe(s), must pre-exist in a highly compressed state with enough gravity to eliminate all space/time within and without, like a huge black hole consisting of a single largish neutron. It must have a catalyst to cause that potential universe to “erupt” into existence; perhaps by arriving at a critical mass, or the collision of two such objects.
    The mass and energy of an entire universe; or multiple universes if you subscribe to that theory; is unlikely to accumulate in one place as a result of random quantum fluctuations popping into and out of existence. Only one thing can pop out of an absolute void – a “something other than nothing”.
    Call it what you will: an absolute void must be every form of 0 and 1 in superposition; a state of all potential that simultaneously IS everything that can possibly exist, including you and me. That chain of binary logic containing you and me has laws of physics because it is a chain of logic.
    How can we possibly know if what we perceive as the universe is “real”, or just a “possible universe” made of ‘something other than nothing’, the other face of an absolute void?
    Does it matter? Reality is the experience of existence; and we the living, wherever we exist, are the ability of the universe to observe, experience and accumulate knowledge about its own existence from every habitable niche and perspective; whatever the reality of existence may prove to be.

    • I recommend Reading Ed Fredkins Digital Mechanics, DIgital Philosophy and On the Soul.
      In it he formed the entire subject of the universe being a discrete program run on a universal computer.

      • I’ll try to find a copy. Just read a critique of Fredkins’ theories of Digital Mechanics and Philosophy by Robert Wright. Fascinating guy whom I’d never heard of till now. Relieved to find someone not universally considered a fruitcake with views that mesh with my own. Thanks for the introduction.

        • He was my supervisor back when I did my ph.d. giving me an Erdös number of 3 through Feynman -> Fredkin -> Moi.
          Coincidentaly I also have a Bacon number of 3 by sitting Reading a book onstage in a small play phrasing the line “What?” at the end. Giving me a combined Erdös-Bacon number of 6.
          Given my profession getting a Bacon-number at all is pretty hilarious.

          • My Feynman number is two which makes my Einstein number 3. No idea what my Bacon number is (4?)

          • Impressive. Would someone have to film the play to qualify for a Bacon number? I assume some doting parent would have done so, if not your own.

          • That would give us an equal Feynman and Erdös number.
            It is a good question, I do not know if there is actually a filming requirement since Bacon has done theatrical work himself.
            I ended up with Bacon -> Curry -> Malarkey -> Moi. Sounds like some sort of indigestion from Indian food. 🙂

  11. Albert, that was deep. and speaking of deep:

    M 6.4 – 208km S of Tarauaca, Brazil

    2016-12-18 13:30:12 (UTC)
    10.028°S 71.013°W
    619.3 km

  12. slightly OT – Santa is a quantum wave/particle – that is how he can be at every child’s house at the same time, and also explains why you’re not allowed to peek as that collapses santa to a particular location. He’s also imaginary and if you imagine the child was bad and multiply isanta*ichild = -1 present.

  13. HELP!
    Terrorists, äh theorists and simulators are out, running free…
    Schrödinger’s cat is definitly dead. It starved, no animal survives 100 years in a box.
    😀 😉

      • My two, now dead, cats would sharply disagree…and you don’t want to argue with a cat, even if they’re dead…
        Yeah, adapting the quantum “world” to the macro world to gain comprehensibility is a miserable….fail.
        And the Wave-Particle Duality is one of the easier concepts of quantum mechanics…
        *dramatically tearing her hair like Einstein*

        • I would say that it is one of the hardest to understand since the consequences are so far reaching. The other ones may be technically harder mathematically, but the ramifications are not so wide spread so once you get them you got them. But, the double slit experiment is something you can ponder for a lifetime.

          • My mind has no problems imagining a wave beeing a particle and wise versa and simultaniously, but no chance when it comes to strings. And I really HATE this particle zoo…I don’t think, I’ll live to see the “easy” principle underneath…
            And I’m so not fond of the math…so stay away with QED… 😉
            Fortunatly I know people who can calculate things like a dynamic molecular diameter for me…(and have fun doing so)…

        • Of course there is not just one cat. Unlike electrons, which are identical, cats are not. Therefor there are as many cats as are not identical. Obviously that extends to every atom in their construction, so, quite a lot of possible cats…

          • No, it is the same cat travelling at luminal speed through quant-space, it just looks different due to the angle it is hitting the 11-dimensional Calabi-Yau structure that underlies the Universe.

            (sneakily combining QED with M-theory)

      • There is a theory that the Universe was created to in order to accommodate -and feed- a single cat. Quantum theory was introduced in order to distract some people and keep them from discovering this fact.

  14. New fissure direction from Bardarbunga towards Tungnafellsjo ̈kull?

    Probably nothing out of the ordinary, but there was an M2.4 at a depth of 17.3km out where I imagine the KIS station is. Too bad KIS is out??

    • I have noticed an increase in the number of deep quakes in the Bardarbunga area recently

      • Ding!
        There have been a Rising number of Deep earthquakes under Unknownabunga over at the knee where the dyke bounced in 2014 and Deep earthquakes trending towards Vonarskard. This is a sign of magma pooling at depth and that may in turn cause a volcano to erupt. We can’t say which yet though.

  15. Really strange 3.5 earthquake here near the Tjornes Fracture Zone region with an accompanying small swarm.

    This is not part of the Tjornes Fracture Zone proper, and there have been almost zero quakes in this region at least since 1995 (using Ian’s maps as a reference). Additionally, this is located at a depth of around 13km, ranging up to 9km in depth.

    • Thanks for posting – and for the work lying behind it.

      Two things caught my attention: first, the number of quakes running from N to WNW of Bardarbunga towards Vonaskard, some of them quite deep. And second, it’s interesting to see Kneeabunga taking shape. How long before we get some shallower quakes there, I wonder.


    Looks like Campi Flegrei is changing its behaviour. Scientist dont know yet if its a good or bad thing. The media however, seems to have already started to write Obituaries for 2020.

    GL Edit add: Link to the related Nature Article that doesn’t whine about using an ad blocker, or add on slobbering doom stuff.

    • This is a really terrible article. The first issue is that Campi Flegrei is not a supervolcano. It’s a big volcano, but not a supervolcano by any means.

      Second, offers no actual substance or anything new – just random speculation that it’s “at critical pressure” by journalists that know very little about volcanoes.

    • To be honest, out of the articles i found, this is the only one that at least tried to offer some scientific neutral viewpoint. Linked to the actual original research. And did not declare we are all going to die.

        • I just noticed the header pix.

          WTF is father christmas doing being drawn by a bunch of daleks?

          How do the nordics know about daleks?

          [As one who saw the original episode when originally aired..]

    • Just read the actual paper – really interesting stuff, and definitely some cutting edge stuff being researched here. Slightly worrisome to be honest, although I’m not an expert.

      This is one of those papers that really need to be discussed in-depth, and not in some brief daily-mail type article that simply glosses over the actual important stuff, and chooses to highlight the “doom” and “supervolcano” aspects of things.

      Would be interesting to hear Boris’s thoughts and feedback on this if he is still around here at all.

      • The paper is actually very good. Their model predicts an eruption in 2020 but they happily point out reasons why that may not happen. In fact, such calderas show events of inflation and subsequent deflation, but they fit only the inflation. But there are good indication the shallow rocks are heating up.

        • Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised at how interesting and good the article was after the news headlines that accompanied it. I wish there was some way that we could track the trendline that was shown in the paper.

          Definitely seems to be some interesting new techniques that could be useful for predicting future eruptions.

          • Their model for Campi Flegrei reaching critical pressure and an eruption gives an error margin of plus or minus ~2 years from 2020, so somewhere between 2018 and 2022. Will be fascinating to see if those power law and exponential growth calculations derived from other volcanoes pan out to a viable technique for predicting eruptions.

        • Have “we” ever thought about making a centralized repository for articles/research/white papers, like this one from “Nature”, that can be accessed/sorted by VC visitors?

          I know this is a ‘bit’ off topic, but I, personally, would find it very helpful. I cannot count how many times I have wanted to re-read a research paper or white paper that was on a certain topic mentioned in the comments by one of our esteemed contributors that now has some bearing on an entirely different topic, and I spend half a day digging back through VC articles and comments from 6 months ago just to find the link…

          This “Nature” article would be a great candidate, as well as the “Quaternary Magmatism in the Cascades—Geologic Perspectives” PP 1744, which is my new goto for my Pacific NW volcanoes.

          Heck, I am even willing to assist in the collection, if needed, to see this through in 2017.

          Or…”Hey VL, you have gone bonkers!” is a perfectly reasonable response, as well. Expected, really…

          • I think this would be super useful – keep a general repository of resources. But I would imagine that would take a lot of work, and given the fact that this is a site run by volunteers, that may involve a lot of expectations.

      • Will the next eruption of Campi Felgrei be a VEI 7 event, or more like a much smaller cinder cone building event like Monte Nuovo in 1538?

        • Monte Nuovo like, most likely. That was preceded by quite a lot of inflation

        • Monte Nuovo and other infill events like it, are what make up most “large caldera” activity. They build the floor that the monster ones come from. As noted in previous articles, when it’s time for that, the indications will be pretty clear. When the volcanologists freak out and run, then it’s a good idea to follow.

  17. Hmm – the original Nature Communications article makes for interesting reading. Thanks for spotting it!

  18. From the Alaskan Volcano Observatory –

    “A short-lived explosive eruption of Bogoslof volcano was reported by several pilots around 0100 UTC (4:00 pm AST). They reported a volcanic ash cloud rising to an estimated altitude of 34,000 ft (10.3 km). Satellite data show a discrete, short-lived explosion just prior to 0100 UTC that detached and drifted to the south by 0115 UTC. A subsequent pilot report from 0150 UTC indicated that activity had decreased.”

    • This was mentioned further up in the comments.

      General consensus is that the paper and research is great, but most of the news covering it is not so great.

  19. Offtopic, still interesting to see the anomalous warmth at the North Pole at this time of the year. This has been ongoing since October. Some regions high in the Arctic have been reaching above 0°C right in the deepest dark of the 24 hour night. Svarbard is one example of above-freezing temps. Meanwhile, southern Siberia has brutal cold anomalies, some 30°C below average.

    It´s quantum surprise: these days you step outside in the north Hemisphere with a long sleeved shirt and you don´t know whether it´s balmy and you are shocked to find out that its not really cold despite the darkness (as in Svarbard +3°C), OR you freeze to death in a couple of minutes (as in Surgut, southern Siberia -50°C).

  20. Bogoslof has just gone off again, exactly 24 hours later, same ash plume height (FL350) back to Red Alert! I have a feeling this back-and-forth may continue for some time. I can imagine the AVO monitoring room is rather busy right now!

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