Schrödenger’s Night Watchman

There is a night watchman whose job it is to keep an eye on an empty office building between the hours of midnight and 8:00 am. For most of his shift he sits at a desk near the front entrance watching a bank of surveillance monitors. Twice during his shift he makes rounds throughout the building. This takes about an hour. At 7:00 am he unlocks the front doors and spends the remainder of his shift sitting at the front desk greeting people as they come in.

At any given time you have a pretty good idea where in the building the night watchman will be. Between midnight and 1:00 am he’ll be at the desk. At 1:05 am he’ll be heading down the main hallway, starting his first patrol. You can guess almost to the minute when he’ll be on the third floor, or walking down the back stairs, or checking the door to the loading dock, and so forth. Of course these are just educated guesses–only the night watchman actually knows because he’s the only person in the building. Maybe some times instead of being at his desk he’s in the bathroom, or making himself a cup of coffee in the kitchenette down the hall. Maybe one night he lingers an unusually long time in a sixth floor conference room, mesmerized by a trickle of headlights on the highway below. In general though the watchman’s location is very predictable. This is a boring job.

You can imagine a video screen displaying the watchman’s probable locations as colors projected onto a floor plan of the building. Bight red represents where he is most likely to be, grading through orange and yellow for possible locations, heading down to cooler blues to represent unlikely locations, and finally becoming transparent for regions of the building where the night watchman almost certainly is not. There is a digital clock at the bottom of the screen that runs as you view an animation of the watchman’s whereabouts throughout the night. Between midnight and 1:00 am there is a tight red blob around the front desk. During his rounds the color spreads throughout the building, a red ball centered around where he’s likely to be, with a penumbra of orange that trails off into blue since the watchman doesn’t do exactly the same thing night after night. It is like watching a multicolored jellyfish ooze its way through the hallways and up the staircases, its edges flickering and luminescent. Even if you knew that this depiction represented a fairly abstract idea about probabilities, it would be easy to get into the habit of thinking that the office building was actually being guarded by an oozing shimmering jellyfish.

In order to make sure the night watchman is actually doing his rounds there are sensor boxes scattered throughout the building. He waves a keycard across one and it registers that he was there at a particular instant, allowing us to track his progress. He is next to the third floor women’s room at exactly 3:07 am, on the fourth floor stair landing at 3:25 am, outside the fifth floor conference room at 4:04 am and so forth. Now imagine how this would appear on our screen. We presume the watchman starts his rounds at 1:00 am, so we’d see the tight red ball detach itself from the front desk, spread out a bit, and begin oozing towards the stairs. It drifts like this for a while, its nucleus moving with purpose, but with blurred edges sniffing about, reflecting the fact that we can’t know exactly where the guy is. Then the watchman comes to the first sensor box and swipes his keycard. On the screen the diffuse blob instantly collapses into a single red dot right on top of the first sensor box because we know that’s where the night watchman is at that moment. Now as time continues to unfold, he will presumably resume his rounds and uncertainty will insinuate itself again. The single red point will swell back into an orangish haze of possibility, oozing its way through the building until the watchman reaches the next sensor box and swipes his card, at which point it will again collapse to a red dot.

If you only ever saw the screen this all might seem exceedingly odd. Not only is the office building being guarded by a shimmering jellyfish, but from time to time that jellyfish collapses to a single point, then reinflates and resumes its oozing. What’s more it certainly can’t be the electronic mechanism of the sensor box that causes the watchman to abruptly change his shape. No, it seems as if it’s our knowledge of the watchman’s location causes his dramatic collapse. The mere act of observing a thing changes it. What could be the deep forces at play here? Is it synchronicity? Are we tapping into the universal mind? Certainly we are at some boundary where science must cede authority to a mystical acknowledgement of how powerful and amazing our personal consciousness is!

There is nothing of the sort. There is just a night watchman. For a while we know where he is, and then we don’t.

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2 Responses to Schrödenger’s Night Watchman

  1. Pingback: We are Mostly Empty Space | Corner Cases

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    On further reflection, I need a caveat. Though I stand by its usefulness as an illustration of waveform collapse, the above sounds like an implicit endorsement of the “hidden variable” interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which the non-deterministic nature of quantum phenomena is merely due to our ignorance about the details of microscopic processes. This is the case for the night watchman, who is always in a definite place, we just don’t know where that it. The more prevalent interpretation says that quantum phenomena are inherently non-deterministic. This is a difference between subatomic particles and night watchmen.

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