Schrödinger’s Idiot

schroedingers idiot

Many years ago, a few of us in a friendly gathering ruthlessly critiqued the intellect of a colleague who happened to commit a momentary faux pas. After the laughter died down, a wise one in the group remarked, “50% of the people I come across are smarter than me and the other 50% are dumber“.

Conversation shifted to other topics. We all moved on. Years later, that phrase is still stuck with me. Brilliant as he was, his statement was notable for its humility, insight, and balance about his self.

Over the years I have saved myself many times from the brink of stupidity by remembering those pithy words I now refer to as the 50% rule and its significant corollary: 50% of the people you come across think you are smarter than them and the other 50% think that they are smarter than you. What has this got to do with Schrödinger’s Idiot? Let’s start with Schrödinger’s Cat.

Schrödinger’s Cat

If you recall this concept from your quantum mechanics lessons, you may skip ahead to the next section. If not, here is an unscientific primer on Schrödinger’s cat. The thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger as shown below has a cat in a box. The cat dies from poisoning if a radioactive material in the box decays. Note: No animal has ever been harmed by such an experiment.

Schrödinger's Cat
Schrödinger’s Cat

Detailed sequence of events is as follows:

  1. Radioactive material decays; hammer triggered
  2. Hammer smashes bottle of poisonous gas
  3. Cat down if material had decayed; cat’s state unknown until box is opened

In this hypothetical experiment, we will not know for certain if the cat is dead or alive (50:50 chance) unless we open the box. Once we open the box, the wave function (ψ or psirepresenting the cat’s existence collapses and we see a dead cat or a live cat. Until then the wave function tantalizes us with the very real possibility of the cat being alive.

schroedinger's cat wavefunction
A Look Could Kill

Schrödinger’s Idiot

Let us replace the cat with our intellect as perceived by others – some considering it smarter than theirs and the rest who consider it less smart than theirs. As this sentiment of “smarter or dumber” could vary with time, we could be perceived as smarter or dumber depending on the time of day. The time-dependent perception of our intellectual capacity implies that we are constantly moving back and forth between the state of being smart or not in others’ views at any moment, sometimes during a single conversation, much like the existence of the cat.

Caution: This line of thinking might make for a rancorous debate with your significant other on who is smarter. Be careful when trying at home!

As a result, our intellect viewed by others is like a wave function with crests and troughs that as Werner Heisenberg said “…represents partly a fact and partly our knowledge of a fact“.  That wave function collapses when others observe us. Close inspection could indeed be lethal to the intellect, exactly what it did to the cat!

At this point in my rant to self, I certified myself as Schrödinger’s Idiot. I had replaced the cat with my intellect and found myself ambulating about in a state of partial knowledge about the state of my intellect relative to others.

I am not sure how you feel about your intellect being governed by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. I have mixed feelings about it. In other words, I am 50:50.

What about you? Which 50% are you in today? Did you observe your wave function collapse? Did others observe it? When your wave function collapsed, were you smart or were you not?

Bonus tip for having read this far: the overlap between the group you think is smarter and the group that thinks you are smarter represents the size of your mutual admiration society.

Post Script

It appears we could apply the 50% rule to other attributes of one’s persona such as wealth, happiness etc. Are 50% of people richer than you or poorer than you (at least within a particular social strata); happier or sadder than you?

What about your promotability at work? When you are promoted, do 50% of people view it as deserving and the other 50% view it as undeserving? If that makes you mad, you may reflect on your own views of others’ promotability and calm yourself down.

This quote by George Eliot seems to be a fitting end to this rant:

One couldn’t carry on life comfortably without a little blindness to the fact that everything has been said better than we can put it ourselves.

Author: Hari

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