Quantum… jokes?

Many jokes, particularly puns and one-liners, rely on on setting up expectations, just to subvert them, on double meanings and ambiguity. Take this one:

I would tell you a chemistry joke, but I wouldn’t get any reaction.

Whether you find it funny or not, you can see that it’s all about the double meaning of “reaction”. And that would never work if, when understanding one meaning, you immediately forgot the other. It’s as if, as the joke unravels, “reaction” gained two incompatible meanings simultaneously.

You know what else behaves in multiple, incompatible ways at once? Good old quantum objects.

When measuring the properties of quantum systems, the results depend on context. How you measure the system matters, as does how you prepared your system for the experiment. Something similar also holds for jokes: who tells the joke, how they deliver it, and in what context can make the difference between funny and offensive. Seth Myers has a whole segment based on this.

According to a recent paper on Frontiers of physics, quantum mechanics could be the way to approach humor mathematically. However, as the scientists are quick to specify, this does not mean that humor has any sort of actual quantum behavior. Just that the same math tools could work in both cases.

In this “quantum” framework, the joke-teller sets up some superposition state of words, which now has two meanings at once (like that famous dead and alive cat). As listener gets the joke, they “measure” its funniness, which is a different property (in quantum speak, it’s a different basis), but is also in superposition. Following quantum rules, the measurement destroys the superposition, it picks one of the possible results: either the joke is funny or it’s terrible. Which is picked depends on the listener, on how it was set up, on context, etc.

It’s pretty cool, but researchers only got preliminary and “not terribly surprising” results (their words) from experiments, so it’s not quite clear whether this method can actually work. Still, comedy has used science for years: in movies, TV and comics (just to name a few). Now it could be payback time!

If you want more
  • If you feel you need more details on this whole measuring quantum properties thing, I recommend one of many introductory books, or this nice video

Cover photo: CC0 Sandrine Rongère/pixabay

Cats and not


AnThere’s a sealed box, inside the box is a cute cat and a device that can kill it as soon as a radioactive atom decays. Were we to open the box, would the cat be alive? And how is it doing while the box is still closed?

In extreme synthesis, this is the idea of the famous “Schrödinger’s cat” experiment (thought experiment! no actual cats actually harmed! what kind of sicko would do that?!), named after German physicist Erwin Schrödinger, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics.

As you may have heard, as long as we don’t open the box, quantum mechanics allows the cat to be both dead and alive at the same time.

The reason behind this weirdness is one of the founding principles of quantum mechanics: the superposition principle. Simply put, in the microscopic world of quanta, some properties can have several values simultaneously. For example, an electron can be in two places at once, until we go measure it. Then it “picks” a position to be found at. Until then, it really is in several places at the same time.

The superposition principle is a real thing. For real. They did experiments. Quantum theory, then, describes a world fundamentally different than the macroscopic, classical one we know and love.

Our rules don’t work for microscopic particles, and quantum rules don’t work for, like, cats.

Using the rules of one world in the other we get in trouble: a cat cannot be both dead and alive, but an atom can be both decayed and not.

That’s exactly what Schrödinger was trying to do putting a quantum thing (the atom) together with a classical one (the cat).

Precisely those different rules are where the wonderful and magical weirdnes of quantum mechanics comes from.


Cover photo: Cat CCTV, CC-BY-SA Takashi Hososhima, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.