August 20, 2016
I was in a conversation with my daughter the other day – she’s been doing a lot of auditioning lately and is working hard to get herself more deeply involved in musical theatre. I commented that, despite her many lessons and auditions, I’d never heard her sing, and she responded, “That’s by design, Dad. To you, I have Schrödinger’s voice.”
“Schrödinger’s voice?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said. “So long as you never hear me sing, my voice is the most beautiful sound you can imagine.”
“Or the worst voice ever,” I countered.
“Well yeah,” she said. “When I sing for you, you’ll know what my voice sounds like. As long as I keep you from hearing it, my voice is quite possibly amazing.”
Wow. In two minutes of conversation, my daughter had fundamentally changed my understanding of Schrödinger and my understanding of what we do in Application Development at OST. I call it “Schrödinger’s Project”.
To understand my breakthrough, though, we first need to understand Schrödinger.
In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger was trying to make sense of something called quantum superposition. Those are some big words, I know, but quantum superposition is a fundamental aspect of observable subatomic behavior. The idea is that a subatomic particle could exist simultaneously in more than one state. That’s what a superposition is. Schrödinger believed that it was the observation of (or attempt to measure) the current state that caused the quantum superposition to collapse into a single state.
Still with me? Of course you aren’t. Unless you spent a lot of time in physics class (or you really are a rocket scientist), your eyes started to glaze over the second time I mentioned quantum superposition. Right?
That’s exactly why Schrödinger decided, instead of talking about quantum physics, to talk about a cat. Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment designed to help us understand quantum superposition (without using the words “quantum superposition” at all).
Imagine a cat in a box. Imagine, in the box, that there is a flask of poison. Imagine, also in the box, that there is a slowly-decaying radioactive source. Now, imagine that there is a radioactivity sensor connected to the poison. If the radioactivity sensor detects radioactive particle decay, it triggers the release of the poison, killing the cat; but so long as the sensor does not detect radioactivity, the poison stays sealed in the flask and the cat stays alive. Got it? Okay.
Is the cat alive or is it dead?
Schrödinger’s answer is that the cat is BOTH alive AND dead. Because the element may or may not have decayed, because the sensor may or may not have triggered, because the flash may or may not have been shattered, the cat exists in a “superposition,” and the cat will remain in state until an observation is made. It is only when you observe whether the cat is alive or dead that the superposition collapses and the cat becomes EITHER alive OR dead.
Which brings us back to my daughter.
Her desire is to keep her voice in a quantum superposition; to keep her voice in Schrödinger’s box. She prefers to continue to keep me in a place where her voice might be the voice of an angel because, so long as the superposition exists, her voice is BOTH the best and the worst possible outcome. It is only through my observation that her voice will shift, the superposition would collapse, and her true voice is be revealed.
I know her true voice is somewhere between these two extremes. Everybody knows that. In reality, her voice is neither the most amazing nor the most horrific voice I’ve ever heard – it’s somewhere between the extremes. But that’s not what she sees. So long as she can preserve the superposition, she maintains the possibility that her voice is without equal … and she denies herself the praise I would provide her, and the coaching I might share with her.
So my daughter’s clever. And complex. It’s true. But the breakthrough for me was in how these ideas relate to what I do at OST.
I’m a consultant. I work with clients as a part of a project team. And sometimes, I try to manage Schrödinger’s Project – I try to manage the project without truly understanding it … without opening the lid.
I’m here to tell you — that’s impossible. So long as you avoid the details, so long as you put off getting your hands dirty and getting into the trenches, you can imagine that everything is perfect, pretend that you understand the need, and fantasize that you’re being successful … but it’s not real. It’s a thought experiment. It’s make-believe. Schrödinger’s Project isn’t real.
The real project you’re avoiding getting involved in – it’s brilliant and terrible. It’s easy and hard. It’s obvious and confounding, true and false, simple and bizarre. It’s a conundrum, an enigma, a problem to solve. It’s nothing and everything. And that’s exactly what we want.
Solving tough problems requires us to get our hands dirty. Solving tough problems requires that we rip the lid off the box and stare into Schrödinger’s box. It may not be as wonderful (or as terrible) as you imagine it is, but it’ll be real.
Collapse that quantum superposition, my friend. And have fun.