ENGL 6310/7310
Popular Culture
Fall 2011
PH 300
M 240-540
Dr. David Lavery
Popular Culture Studies
Thinking Inside the Box: Heisenberg’s
Indeterminancy Principle, the Paradox of
Schrödinger’s Cat, and Television
Nate Fisher, Jr.: Tell me, am I dead?
Nate Fisher, Sr.: Yes. And no. In some
places you’re dead, some you’re alive,
in some places you never even existed,
possibly, theoretically.
--“Perfect Circles,” Six Feet Under
Popular Culture Studies
Greg Bear’s,
‘Schrödinger's Plague”
Popular Culture Studies
Schrödinger (not trusting my own humble English major’s ability to do so, I quote
Bear’s account—speaking through mad scientist Goa)
‘proposed linking quantum events to macrocosmic events. He suggested putting
a cat in an enclosed box, and also a device which detect the decay of a single
radioactive nucleus. Let's say the nucleus has a fifty-fifty chance of decaying in
an arbitrary length of time. If it does decay, it triggers the device, which drops a
hammer on a vial of cyanide, releasing the gas into the box and killing the cat.’
Popular Culture Studies
So far, so good, but we would do well to recall that this thought
experiment is customarily, justifiably referred to as ‘The Paradox
of Schrödinger’s Cat.’ For
‘The scientist conducting this experiment has no way of
knowing whether the nucleus decayed or not without
opening the box. Since the final state of the nucleus is not
determined without first making a measurement, and the
measurement in this case is the opening of the box to
discover whether the cat is dead, Schrödinger suggested
that the cat would find itself in an undetermined state,
neither alive nor dead, but somewhere in between. Its fate
is uncertain until a qualified observer opens the box.’
Popular Culture Studies
In effect a lab-based
reductio ad absurdum,
Schrödinger’s paradox was
intended to show that his
younger, upstart colleague
Heisenberg’s postulation
that the nature of
quantum reality is
indeterminate or uncertain
apart from the particular
consciousness of a
particular observer was
simply unacceptable.
Popular Culture Studies
Bear, of course, has his mad
scientist take Schrödinger’s
protest one step further, enacting
a real world version in which a
lethal experimental virus is or is
not released into the
atmosphere, depending on the
validity of Heisenbergian
indeterminancy. If released, it will
eradicate the species—
deservedly Goa believes: ‘[I]f the
best mankind can do is come up
with an infuriating theory like this
to explain the universe, then we
should be willing to live or die by
our belief in the theory’ (481).
Popular Culture Studies
Bear’s mind-bending tale is science fiction, of course—literary
SF of the ‘hard’ variety, its extrapolation from a major 20th
Century scientific controversy not at all surprising. But who
could have foreseen Heisenberg and Schrödinger migrating with
increasing prominence into both big and small screen fictions?
Hard Science Fiction: ‘Science fiction in which the
technology or science portrayed in the story has been
extrapolated from current scientific theories, especially in
which the laws of nature (as understood at the time of
writing) are not violated’ (Prucher 87).
Popular Culture Studies
Independent American cinema’s poster boys the Coen brothers, for
example, have more than once turned to quantum physics to
complicate their already convoluted narratives. In The Man Who
Wasn’t There (2001), for example, as I have discussed at length
elsewhere (‘Secret Shit’ 142-44), a logorrhoeic lawyer named Freddy
Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) offers a hard-boiled version of
Heisenberg in order to explain to a dim-witted barber his approach to
his wife’s defense in a murder trial.
Popular Culture Studies
They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz
something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it's
Werner. Anyway, he's got this theory,
you wanna test something, you know,
scientifically—how the planets go round
the sun, what sunspots are made of, why
the water comes out of the tap—well,
you gotta look at it. But sometimes, you
look at it, your looking ‘changes’ it. Ya
can't know the reality of what happened,
or what ‘would've’ happened if you
hadden a stuck in your goddamn
schnozz. So there ‘is’ no ‘what
happened.’ Not in any sense that we can
grasp with our puny minds. Because our
minds . . . our minds get in the way.
Looking at something changes it. They
call it the ‘Uncertainty Principle.’ Sure, it
sounds screwy, but even Einstein says
the guy's on to something. (66-67)
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Not the only Heisenberg cameo in
the Coen corpus.
In A Serious Man (2009) a scene
opens on the World’s Largest
Chalkboard filled with the
Universe’s Most Complex Equation
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. . . as put-upon, Job-like physics professor Larry Gopknik
(Michael Stuhlbarg) explains to a packed lecture hall: ‘and that
means . . . so that ... from which we derive . . . and also . . .
which lets us . . . and . . . Okay? The Uncertainty Principle. It
proves we can't ever really know . . . what's going on. . . . But
even if you can’t figure anything out, you’ll still be responsible
for it on the mid-term’ (93; my italics).
Popular Culture Studies
Earlier in the same film a certain quantum cat also puts it in an appearance. As
Dr. Gopnik drones on, accompanied by more chalkboard scribbling, we hear
(even if his near comatose students do not) the following: ‘You following this? .
. . Okay? . . . So . . . Heh-heh . . . This part is exciting. . . . So, okay. So. So if that's
that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn't that right? And that's
Schrödinger's paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead? Okay?’ (17;
my italics). (Later he admits that he doesn’t really grasp “the cat.”)
Popular Culture Studies
A full decade before Fritz (or maybe it’s Werner)
Heisenberg would grace a Coen brothers movie,
he had already appeared in our living rooms, near
the very end (in the 20th of 22 episodes in its
second and final season) of the television
landmark Twin Peaks.
Only two episodes before Special Agent Dale
Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) would enter the
mysterious Black Lodge in pursuit of his beloved
Annie Blackburne (Heather Graham) and her
captor Earle (Kenneth Welsh) and emerge
possessed by BOB, the pie and jo (coffee) obsessed
FBI man would meet Annie at the Double R Cafe
where the former nun had found a job slinging
hash. As their conversation (written by Harley
Peyton and Robert Engels) reveals, they would hit
it off immediately, bonding over their mutual
knowledge of quantum epistemology.
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Cooper: There are those who believe
in a scientific basis for attraction. It's
Annie: Is that what this is?
Cooper: I don't know. Is it possible to
understand without perspective?
Annie: I spent five years trying.
Cooper: Faith.
Annie: It's difficult for me. But I have
faith in you. In us, as I understand it.
Cooper: We are very much alike.
Annie: It helps.
Cooper: But we think too much.
Annie: ‘What we observe is not
nature itself, but nature exposed to
our method of questioning.’
Cooper: Heisenberg!
Popular Culture Studies
But until the 21st Century
allusions to Schrödinger’s cat in
prime-time were rare.
Now, in a new millennium,
‘Heisenberg’ shows up as the
assumed, soon legendary street
name of high school chemistry
teacher Walter White (Bryan
Cranston), the ‘cook’ of a
beyond-perfect, blue ‘glass’
(crystal meth) on AMC’s Breaking
Bad (2008- ). In shades and a
Fedora, the mild-mannered Walt
becomes a formidable player,
Heisenberg, even if his moral
universe is entirely
Popular Culture Studies
Now Heisenberg and Schrödinger (and his cat) are finding
work everywhere in American television. It should not
surprise us that Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady’s smash hit sitcom
about science nerds, Big Bang Theory, would reference
Schrödinger’s cat—but in the context of a romantic
entanglement? In ‘The Tangerine Factor’ (1.17), the final
episode of the first season, woman-across-the-hall Penny
(Kaley Cuoco) is contemplating actually dating geeky physicist
next door Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and makes the mistake of
asking mega-obnoxious know-it-all Sheldon (Jim Parsons),
Leonard’s roommate, for advice. As a possible way of
understanding the couple’s prospects, Sheldon offers to the
barely comprehending Penny his complex exposition of
Schrödinger’s paradox. Until they actually date, he suggests,
their relationship will be, like the cat, both alive and dead.
Popular Culture Studies
Later, Leonard himself brings up Schrödinger’s gedanken on his first
date with Penny, who is now way too familiar with quantum cats, but
he draws a very different message from the paradox, taking it to
mean something more like ‘strike while the iron is hot’ and kissing
Penny emphatically before their evening has even begun.
Popular Culture Studies
Schrödinger’s cat must have left quite an impression on Penny,
however, for in ‘The Codpiece Topology’ (2.2), we overhear the
following conversation between the aspiring actress and
another, dim-bulb boyfriend:
Penny: No, it wasn’t my cat, it was an experiment designed
by this guy named Schrödinger.
Eric: From the Charlie Brown cartoons?
Penny: No, he was some kind of scientist, let me start
Clearly not every television character can talk cat.
Popular Culture Studies
Or consider FlashForward, ABC’s total fail attempt to replicate
Lost’s success as a serial drama. In ‘Scary Monsters and Super
Creeps,’ its sixth episode, the character of Simon (Dominic
Monaghan)—a major culprit in causing a worldwide blackout
and glimpse into the future for almost the whole population of
the planet—tries to seduce a woman on a train by quizzing her
about . . . Schrödinger's cat. It’s not a particularly memorable
scene, but nothing about the series was.
Popular Culture Studies
In a first season (2009) episode of the clever, heavy-in-PST (prolonged sexual tension) ABC crime
dramedy Castle (‘A Chill Goes Through Her Veins’ [1.5]), the show’s eponymous hero, a bestselling
author of mystery fiction now attached to New York homicide investigators led by Det. Kate
Beckett, engages in the following exchange with Det. Ryan (Seamus Deaver):
Castle: People don't disappear off the face of the earth.
Ryan: Sure they do. Quantum physics, alien abductions, Schrödinger's cat. One minute
you're getting a hot dog in the park, the next you're fighting off Sleestaks on the far side of a
dimensional rift. (my italics)
Popular Culture Studies
Such intertextual play as Ryan’s reference
to the 1970s kids show Land of the Lost is
fairly typical on Andrew Marlowe’s witty
series. In one episode, after all, Castle
dresses up for Halloween as Captain Mal
Reynolds from the cancelled series Firefly
(2002), a role the actor Nathan Fillion
played in another universe. We never
learn, however, how an NYPD detective
came by his familiarity with quantum
Popular Culture Studies
The Heisenberg/Schrödinger's craze—or
should we call it a meme?—actually
began early in the century—in 2003—
with Six Feet Under’s ‘Perfect Circles’
(3.1), quantum TV’s masterpiece.
Working from a script by series creator
Alan Ball, Rodrigo Garcia—the son of
Magical Realism’s patriarch and Nobel
Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Márquez—
directed ‘Circles,’ the mind-blowing
opening sequence of which begins
where Season Two left off, with Nate
Fisher, Jr. (Peter Krausse) under the knife,
brain surgeons operating on his
arteriovenous malformation (AVM).
Things are not going well (the surgeon
asks for aneurysm clamps) . . .
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Nate Fisher Sr.’s Questions to Nate Jr.
1. Do you believe that your consciousness
affects the behaviour of subatomic particles?
2. Do you believe that particles move backward
and forward in time and appear in all possible
places at once.
3. Do you believe that the universe is constantly
splitting into billions of different parallel
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The coffin stands in as well for Schrödinger’s famous box. In the
“real” world, Nate must be either alive or dead, and the verdict
is life: once again the NATHANIEL SAMUEL FISHER, JR. / 1965 –
2002 title appears, but the ‘2002’ fades away and we hear
Nate’s voice at a barbeque talking about his surgery. If there has
been a more extraordinary sequence in the history of television
I have not seen it. Garcia and Ball’s collaboration here makes
Cooper’s famous dream from Twin Peaks seem tame by
How, then, did Heisenberg’s indeterminancy principle come to
large and small screens near you? Why is the paradox of
Schrödinger’s cat primed to experience perhaps more than nine
lives in the movies and on television? I can only speak on behalf
of television here.
Popular Culture Studies
In a time in which, according to Robert Thompson, the “quality TV aesthetic” has
spread “like a virus” and we are witness to a “massive repackaging strategy across
generic lines,” a “retooling comparable to the switchover to colour three decades
earlier” (xvii), allusions to confounding controversies concerning the architecture of
matter, from passing references (as in Castle) to integral roles in the narrative (Six Feet
Under), are essential indications of quality control (if you will). When Big Bang Theory
has a physicist on staff as a consultant, when we are told that Brian Greene’s book on
string theory is essential reading for understanding the just-ended Lost (Porter, Lavery,
and Robson 230), we must conclude that, while the fate of Schrödinger’s experimental
feline may be uncertain, the idiot in the “idiot box” is conclusively dead.
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