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Cats and bumps


As we all know, a young man called Isaac Newton once had an striking experience with an apple: he was sitting on a bench having a chat with a friend one autumn afternoon, when an apple fell from the tree whose shade he was enjoying and hit him on the head. With the smack of the fruit on his noddle, a stroke of genius revelation occurred inside the same noddle and we have ever since known of the existence of gravity as a physical principle that governs the world we share.

I had been in Austria nearly a week before I actually managed to try a proper Apfelstrudel, and today after an afternoon in the Spa it seemed to be the entirely right moment to forego my normal evening meal in favour of a stop off at the local restaurant for a sweet treat, knowing as I now do that "Strudel" comes from a Middle High German word meaning "whirlpool". (This might be due to the rolled pattern of pastry and filling that you see when you cut across it on your plate.) Don't I just love these random associations.

As we walked the scenic footpath from our farmhouse into the village of Alpbach, the stunning winter sun beglinting and besparkling off yesterday's crunchy-pure snow, we discovered that this is the burial place of Erwin Schroedinger, Austrian Nobel Prize-winning physicist, whose dead-and-alive-at-the-same-time cat paradox was foundational to the modern understanding of quantum mechanics.

Now, I got a C in O Level Physics in 1981 so my understanding of the subject extends little beyond the tale of Newton's sore head begetting classical mechanical theory, but being married to a theoretical physicist exposes me to some cool stuff. And weird stuff. Like, in this case, quantum theory. Today I have learned that that some really really small things simply do not obey Newton's laws. I repeat: the cat is, in this so called thought experiment, both alive and dead at the same time. It is a matter of superposition.

Isn't that just, er, cool? And weird?

Newton's tree is said to still produce apples, in his garden at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. The cultivar is Flower of Kent, and is said to be good for making apple strudels with. Explicitly.

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