With the release this summer of Schrödinger’s Cat’s memoirs (Schrödinger’s Cat: My Life Out Of The Box) the famous feline has come out of retirement and is busier than ever. Although he is older, heavier and a bit grayer around the whiskers, he still resembles the youthful, courageous animal who climbed into Erwin Schrödinger’s steel chamber in 1935 and changed the course of quantum theory forever.
We caught up with him in his publicist’s office for a saucer of raw milk and this candid conversation:
Q: How did you first become involved with Schrödinger?
A: I didn’t know any better! [LAUGHS] Actually, my living arrangement at the time was less than satisfactory.
Q: I read somewhere that you were homeless?
A: No, I was never a stray cat. I was living with an elderly woman and her eight-year-old grandson. She wasn’t a bad lady, but I found her grandson to be a rather disagreeable child, a budding sadist, if you will. He was forever confining me in small containers. I suspect he was hoping I wouldn’t survive confinement, but I always disappointed him. After waiting several hours, he’d open the container, expecting to find my dead carcass, but instead I’d leap out and use his head as a springboard to reach the top of a cupboard where the old woman kept a bottle of schnapps. I was drinking in those days.
Q: Sounds like a dysfunctional environment.
A: The old lady was drunk most afternoons, often forgetting to fill my food dish, and the boy’s behavior grew more sadistic, with longer and longer confinements. I knew I had to better myself and become self-supporting.
Q: Did you have a plan?
A: I looked at myself in the mirror one day and asked my reflection “What are my strengths? What is it I love to do, that I can turn into a vocation?” And my reply was “Well, I enjoy sitting motionless for long periods of time. I enjoy reading books about quantum systems and pondering the observer’s paradox. I enjoy licking myself.” And so, I started finding work where I could utilize my skills. At first, I posed for photographers and artists.
Q: In your book, there are several photos from that period. Specifically, cat calendars.
A: I was making decent money doing the calendars, although I’m not proud of some of the explicit stuff, like the “Cats Licking Themselves” calendar. If I hadn’t been so desperate, then perhaps I wouldn’t have accepted such an assignment.
Q: How did you finally meet Schrödinger?
A: Did you read my book, or did you just look at the calendar shots? To make a long story short, I answered an ad in Naturwissenschaften (Natural Sciences): “Cat wanted for scientific experiment. Good pay. Easy work. No treadmills or electrodes involved.”
Q: Did you know what you were getting into?
A: Well, if I’d known I’d be locked in a box with hydrocyanic acid, I wouldn’t have called Schrödinger! He never mentioned that part until much later! All I knew was I would get paid for sitting quietly in a locked container. I told him about my experiences with the boy, and that’s when Schrödinger said I was perfect for the job. The next day I was on a boat to Austria.
Q: You have been compared to Ham the Astrochimp, the first chimp in space, for your bravery and pioneering spirit in the service of Science.
A: Frankly, I’ve never welcomed the comparison. I met Ham in the early sixties, when we were on a lecture tour of elementary schools, and I found him less of a scientist and more of a glorified stunt pilot. He didn’t seem to care about the larger issues of the universe and our place in it. Instead, he was all about “Look at me and my shiny spacesuit!”
Q: Did you enjoy lecturing?
A: The children weren’t as excited with me as they were with Ham. I can’t blame them, really. He was much more of a showman. He handed out lollipops and sang patriotic songs. How do you compete with that? I’m proud to say I never pandered. I’d show up with my prepared material and a professional attitude. Maybe my slide show was a bit dry. I always did my best to get the kids interested in the quantum theory of superposition, but most of them just wanted to pet me.
Q: What was Schrödinger like?
A: Very serious. He never wanted to play. I’d drop a catnip mouse in front of him, hoping he’d toss it for me to chase, but he was too wrapped up in his work and his letters to Einstein.
Q: How did your relationship with Schrödinger end?
A: Late one night, after we’d returned from a cocktail party, we were enjoying a few highballs in his kitchen before bed. “Erwin,” I asked him. “Why a cat? Why not a hamster, or a mouse, or a small dog? Why did you choose a cat for your famous thought experiment?” He looked straight at me, and I’ll never forget this, he looked straight at me and replied “Because I don’t like cats.”
A: I got up off his kitchen table, walked out of his apartment, and never saw him again.
Q: One more question: What was it like being both dead and alive simultaneously?
A: I would describe it as Verschrankung. I was conscious, but only vaguely aware of the passing of time. I wasn’t at all concerned about the Geiger counter, the hammer, or the hydrocyanic acid. Without an outside observer, all possible outcomes had occurred, so why worry? I remember licking myself. That, I remember clearly.
Q: What’s next for you? How do you top Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment?
A: I’m going to leap off this table and use your head as a springboard to reach the top of that cupboard where my publicist keeps a bottle of schnapps. This book tour has been exceedingly stressful.
Q: What? Is this some sort of OUCH! Oh my God, I’m bleeding!
A: [FROM THE CUPBOARD] Not until I actually observe you bleeding!