Consider the Elephant (Originally for hitRECord)

My twin brother is studying to be a scientist. What sort of scientist, I can’t quite tell you. All I know is that it has to do with very teeny-tiny things, and he’s extremely concerned with how to fold proteins.

I am not a scientific person. I did not even know that proteins could fold, or that there were certain ways they folded, or that all that molecular origami had life-saving implications. That is the kind of not-scientific person I am. My brother, when he comes home, occasionally attempts to explain scientific principles to me. One disastrous winter break, he was trying to explain the work of his friend the theoretical physicist, which led to an argument on Schrodinger’s Cat that lasted the entire month he was home.

This partially has to do with the fact that my brother is exactly as gifted at verbal communication and story-telling as I am at science – that is to say, he isn’t – and spent the initial explanation undecided if in this scenario the cat was administered a drug that left it dead or sleeping, depending on how humane he was feeling at that moment.  Finally, though, after much confused Wikipedia-ing and prolonged explanations, I looked him square in the eye and said, “That is the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“A cat can’t be halfway dead,” I said. “Either it’s dead or alive. You’re telling me that scientifically, the cat is considered 50% dead simply by virtue of not knowing if it’s alive or not. But let’s say the cat’s dead, right, and then you look, and you see it’s dead. It was still 100% dead two seconds ago, it didn’t become 50% less dead just because you now know it’s dead. Are you honestly telling me that there is an enduring scientific theory based upon a human inability to simply check on the mortality of a cat?”

“The cat’s a metaphor,” he said, “see, if the cat were an electron, this wouldn’t be dumb.”

“But it’s not an electron, it’s a cat,” I protested. “Seriously, am I the first person who realized how stupid this is? It’s a cat.”

“But,” my brother said with the air of someone who has irrefutable logic on their side to win an argument, “it doesn’t matter, because it’s true.”

“I just told you it wasn’t true!” I said. “Do I have to go through the dead cat thing again? It is a terrible, terrible metaphor that kills cats!”

“No,” my brother corrected me, “it’s science.”

(Read more…)

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