Is Reality a Game of Quantum Mirrors? A New Theory Helps Explain Schrödinger’s Cat

Quantum Mirrors Physics Concept

Imagine you sit down and pick up your favorite book. You look at the image on the front cover, run your fingers across the smooth book sleeve, and smell that familiar book smell as you flick through the pages. To you, the book is made up of a range of sensory appearances.

But you also expect the book has its own independent existence behind those appearances. So when you put the book down on the coffee table and walk into the kitchen, or leave your house to go to work, you expect the book still looks, feels, and smells just as it did when you were holding it.

Helgoland Book Cover

In Helgoland, physicist Carlo Rovelli lays out a new way to think about quantum mechanics – and reality itself.

Expecting objects to have their own independent existence – independent of us, and any other objects – is actually a deep-seated assumption we make about the world. This assumption has its origin in the scientific revolution of the 17th century, and is part of what we call the mechanistic worldview. According to this view, the world is like a giant clockwork machine whose parts are governed by set laws of motion.

This view of the world is responsible for much of our scientific advancement since the 17th century. But as Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli argues in his new book Helgoland, quantum theory – the physical theory that describes the universe at the smallest scales – almost certainly shows this worldview to be false. Instead, Rovelli argues we should adopt a “relational” worldview.

What does it mean to be relational?

During the scientific revolution, the English physics pioneer Isaac Newton and his German counterpart Gottfried Leibniz disagreed on the nature of space and time.

Newton claimed space and time acted like a “container” for the contents of the universe. That is, if we could remove the contents of the universe – all the planets, stars, and galaxies – we would be left with empty space and time. This is the “absolute” view of space and time.

Leibniz, on the other hand, claimed that space and time were nothing more than the sum total of distances and durations between all the objects and events of the world. If we removed the contents of the universe, we would remove space and time also. This is the “relational” view of space and time: they are only the spatial and temporal relations between objects and events. The relational view of space and time was a key inspiration for Einstein when he developed general relativity.

Rovelli makes use of this idea to understand quantum mechanics. He claims the objects of quantum theory, such as a photon, electron, or other fundamental particle, are nothing more than the properties they exhibit when interacting with – in relation to – other objects.

These properties of a quantum object are determined through experiment, and include things like the object’s position, momentum, and energy. Together they make up an object’s state.

According to Rovelli’s relational interpretation, these properties are all there is to the object: there is no underlying individual substance that “has” the properties.

So how does this help us understand quantum theory?

Consider the well-known quantum puzzle of Schrödinger’s cat. We put a cat in a box with some lethal agent (like a vial of poison gas) triggered by a quantum process (like the decay of a radioactive atom), and we close the lid.

The quantum process is a chance event. There is no way to predict it, but we can describe it in a way that tells us the different chances of the atom decaying or not in some period of time. Because the decay will trigger the opening of the vial of poison gas and hence the death of the cat, the cat’s life or death is also a purely chance event.

According to orthodox quantum theory, the cat is neither dead nor alive until we open the box and observe the system. A puzzle remains concerning what it would be like for the cat, exactly, to be neither dead nor alive.

But according to the relational interpretation, the state of any system is always in relation to some other system. So the quantum process in the box might have an indefinite outcome in relation to us, but have a definite outcome for the cat.

So it is perfectly reasonable for the cat to be neither dead nor alive for us, and at the same time to be definitely dead or alive itself. One fact of the matter is real for us, and one fact of the matter is real for the cat. When we open the box, the state of the cat becomes definite for us, but the cat was never in an indefinite state for itself.

In the relational interpretation there is no global, “God’s eye” view of reality.

What does this tell us about reality?

Rovelli argues that, since our world is ultimately quantum, we should heed these lessons. In particular, objects such as your favorite book may only have their properties in relation to other objects, including you.

Thankfully, that also includes all other objects, such as your coffee table. So when you do go to work, your favorite book continues to appear as it does when you were holding it. Even so, this is a dramatic rethinking of the nature of reality.

On this view, the world is an intricate web of interrelations, such that objects no longer have their own individual existence independent from other objects – like an endless game of quantum mirrors. Moreover, there may well be no independent “metaphysical” substance constituting our reality that underlies this web.

As Rovelli puts it:

“We are nothing but images of images. Reality, including ourselves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which … there is nothing.”

Written by Peter Evans, ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow, The University of Queensland.

Originally published on The Conversation.The Conversation

27 Comments on "Is Reality a Game of Quantum Mirrors? A New Theory Helps Explain Schrödinger’s Cat"

  1. Robert Mark | July 5, 2021 at 6:50 am | Reply

    I was disappointed by the book.
    Too much history and philosophy, not enough physics.

  2. said elkhamrihi | July 5, 2021 at 8:02 am | Reply


  3. Even this, still, to some of us, seems same plane thought…
    …there is never any interest (relation) in the plane before or the plane after us…

    Understanding: relational potential actual or where here there or active negative passive…
    …as forces without presumption…

  4. Sounds like Hinduism to me.

  5. Next question; what is consciousness, the thing which actualizes the very universe?

  6. Sekar Vedaraman | July 5, 2021 at 11:43 pm | Reply

    What makes us believe that space and time are independent entities.

    What if space and time are joined at the hip?

    Or space-time are two sides of the same coin?

    The view of space-time as relational or independent are dated.

    Space-time may be a single entity and our attempts to explain the same in terms of Gross and Quantum World in terms of modern science without a conceptual understanding of new mathematics (yet to be invented) of single dimension of Space- Time and then Zero 0️⃣ dimensions of neither Space nor time nor space-time needs to depicted mathematically.

    Then we can explore the possibility of negative Space, Negative Time, and Negative-Negative ( Positive) Space-time emerging.

    This will explain the Universe and the Anti Universe in the Multiverse.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

  7. Same flawed reasoning being shared. This idea goes back much further then the enlightenment and is simply a reformation of scientific antirealisim. Namely that all we can see is the shadows on the wall. Confusing this lack of info as proof of a lack of reality is also rather trite and silly. Being good at physics doesn’t seem to transfer to basic philosophy.

  8. Tom Fred James | July 6, 2021 at 3:47 am | Reply

    Consider the book’s relational property’s [notice the possessive Apostrophi]. One, is the Reader’s relation to the Author(s) [mental frame’s] relative to each other, non- local awareness of each frame’s-self, subsequent quantum definition’s resolve to interchange/redefinition resolve to equalize local/non-local coherence.

  9. BibhutibhusanPatel | July 6, 2021 at 6:44 am | Reply

    Absolute nothing do nit exist,even before big bang.Sòmething is eternal and is the matter(or energy).This was present before the big bang and is present after forms universe.So what will happen ìf universe end,then also matter exist.There is no controversy or diĺemma on exìstance of matter or eternity of this or on compĺeteness of the universe.Tìme,Space and state of matter in exìstance varies.

  10. BibhutibhusanPatel | July 6, 2021 at 7:00 am | Reply

    Absolute nothing do nit exist,even before big bang.Sòmething is eternal and is the matter(or energy).This was present before the big bang and is present after forms universe.So what will happen ìf universe end,then also matter exist.There is no controversy or diĺemma on exìstance of matter or eternity of this or on compĺeteness of the universe.Tìme,Space and state of matter in exìstance varies.We are preparing step by step to learn this proporty of matter that how this menifest with time.Whiĺe human is curious abòut own self includes the exìstance of soul and the creater havig law of metascience.

  11. I posted this article on Medium two days ago. I wrote it!

  12. Schrodinger’s cat is a thought experiment that puts too much importance on the observer. In reality, it is utterly irrelevant what the observer knows about the state of the cat. The cat is either alive or dead based on the radioactive decay triggering the poison. The observer could walk away without ever looking to see if the cat is alive and nothing would change. The observers perspective does not control the outcome. Looking in the box merely satisfies the observers desire to know what happened.

  13. Plus sinus cosinus curve untill complete purgation & complete understanding every aspect of life

  14. Oh for GODS sake numbing jumbo the cats alive until he dies whether we see him or not, the book in and of itself is real, how bout curing cancer or hunger… put your brain to good use!!

  15. Read vedas
    They already explained about this illusion world

  16. It’s hard to imagine that a science journal would use that looping video at the top of this page. I do not suffer from nor know anyone close to me that does. Yet it took me less then a second to realize this was a terrible idea. Even game developers understand that would need a warning.

  17. 4 out 15 I agree with you figure it out amongst yourself 🤔

  18. If the cat is alive or dead depends on how long you leave it in the box.
    You never have to open the box to know.
    If you hear it yowling and scratching to get out, which is exactly what a cat would do, you know its alive.

    If you wait long enough, you will smell its decaying carcass, and you will know its dead.

    Never having to open the box, beyond the initial stuffing the cat in there in the first place.

    Everyone should do repeated experiments like this so they understand the reality of a cat in a box.
    Besides, there are too many damn cats running around anyway.
    This would remedy the overpopulation of cats and solve the question as to the cat being alive or dead for all those mental masturbators that keep asking the question.
    The cat is definitely both alive and dead, without you having to observe it, if you leave it in the box.

    This will occur every time, all the time, without fail. You get the same results with a dog. There is your quantum reality.

    Next question.

  19. Dr Joe Butler | July 7, 2021 at 1:49 pm | Reply

    Like the Buddhists have said:

    Everything is interrelated and a illusion.

  20. I am surely out of my element here (disastrous pun regretted), but literary and media theorists, like the philosopher Jacques Derrida, or the media philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, grappled with the same problem in their own way. Derrida saw his work as a critique of metaphysics and McLuhan as meaning as an effect of the media of transmission. Both would agree that meaning or reality is not encoded in the literary object but rather insinuated, historically or relationally. Derrida’s critique argues against the idea of the inherent really real that is primary but hidden from view. Meaning, he suggests, is a contamination principle, a spacing principle.
    Meaning is ultimately not a concept of reality or fixity and it is undecidable, never pure, universal or final. This sounds awfully similar to Mr. Rovelli’s take, does it not?

  21. The cat is the particle and the wave function, while it’s a wave or frequency the possibilities are infinite until it collapse into a reality, your reality.
    The experiment could just be a metaphor or could it

  22. The cat is 99% space. The elemental particles that make up hydrogen atoms were formed from the big bang. Elements, still not alive, were spewed from supernovea. Yet it is a collection of living cells working in unison to pass on dna. The cat is both alive and not alive at the same time.

  23. Plz to some posters, read and understand quantum physics. The comments about the cat almost give a headache. And 99% of what we know about cancer comes from quantum physics: electronic microscope, radiation, etc.

  24. Nothing new here

  25. What would be the application of a rational view of reality to entanglement? Would the entangled particles, like the cat, ‘know’ their own state therefore negating spooky action at a distance or not?

  26. Read the same again and after eight months will share some more insights.

    1. Schrodingers Equation is fascinating Mathematics.

    2. The Nature of Reality to an oberver is indeed relational.

    3. It is dependent on the State in which the Energy- Matter stuff that constitutes the Universe exists.

    4. When it exists as Matter , it appears to be Gross and Real to the Observer.

    5. When it exists as energy , it appears as a force of nature, which exists in many forms . Light, Sound, Action. Cameras capture the histrionics of the animate Matter with Life Form and also non- Matter with consciousness but no Life. There is a Director who makes the movies! The Movie doesnt maqke itself!

    6. See my Earlier Post on this same article shared on July 5th, 2021.

    7. So , how can the Real and Imaginary Cat be reconciled when we apply “Thought” to the problem. Obviously one is Real – whare Matter Predominates and the other is in a flux and here energy dominates and appears as a Optical Illusion to the Mind Stuff.

    8. No one can say that the Moon Does Not Exist. It is Real. We have been there and brought back Moon Rocks.

    9. Similarly we cannot say that Planetary Objects do not exist or elements we have discovered since the modern Scientific Revolution started thanks to Research do not exist. These are visible to the eye and our gross five senses.

    10. New Discovery is being driven by examining the Two Dimensional Science and applying the same to Three Dimensional / Four Dimensional Space Time Connundrum. Or is Space-Time a single Dimension!

    11. I suspect that the Mathematics of Schrodinger is correct but incomplete. Both the Real and Optical Illusion exist as anyone lost in the Sahara desert would tell you, if she/he has run out of water. Ask the Residents of Morocco and other places with a vast expanse of Sand! The creeping desertification of the land continues and appears to be picking up pace.

    12. We need to reinvent New Mathematics .
    a. The Quantum world is a subset of the World of “Small” Sub – Atomic Things and Large Forces.
    b.The Gross World is a subset of the World of Large Matter (Form of Energy in Potential Form) , which have coalesced together , and Small “Weak” Forces Like Gravity, Sound, Light, and other forms of energy. LASER is LIght Amplified ……

    New Mathematics needs to reconcile the two , to get a basi9c understanding of Mother Nature.

    13. Bhors uncertainty principle, does not mean that Probability and Statistics determine the fate of the Gross world and all that exists in the Universe. The more I study the Science of Matter and Energy the more I am convinced that the Almighty Creator exists.

    14. If in doubt I recommend Pascal.

    15. From Recent discussions with a classmate in London practising as a medical Doctor in UK, i realise that it is doifficult if not impossible to change the mind of a single human being whose mind is already made up.

    I would like to Place my thanks on record to the modern Day Greek Goddesses who inspired me to understand the real Nature of Mother Nature, which is very similar to the Indian Shakti Worship of Goddesses in their various forms during human existence.

    Life did not emerge from a chemical mix. Philosophy of the non-existence of the Almighty Creator is highlyy suspect. The Odds of Life emerging in its mind blogging variety on Planet Earth and evolution and extinction of countless species is truy astounding.

    That Life thrives and wants to exist is the truth of all Scientific Findings till date. The complexity of Life and its evolution, extinction of varied species cannot be ascribed to Chance alone.

    Views expressed are Personal and not binding on anyone.

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