I’m sitting on the toilet with my eyes shut. I don’t dare open them. If I open them I’ll find out which universe I’m in, and I’m not ready for that yet.
It’s a wet and grey Sunday in February. One of those days when you open the curtains and you just want to get back into bed. But we got up. And found the leak in the roof.
I was already stressed that I was late and the weather had added a touch of depression, and now entropy was conspiring to make my Sunday even worse. We noticed the yellowing plaster first, then we found a hole in the roof. We didn’t know how long it had been there, how much damage had been done, how much this would cost us. We were both upset. I said something snarky, my husband said something snarky back, then we were arguing.
It was damp and cold and I needed to pee. So I left my husband on the roof and came back inside to take the test. And now I’m here, sitting on the toilet, with my eyes shut.
It all reminds me of Schrödinger’s cat, ever heard of it?
Well, picture a cat in a box, and picture a vial of poison in that box too. There’s a 50:50 chance the vial breaks – if it does, the cat dies. The box has no windows, so whilst it’s shut you have no idea if that cat is dead or alive. But a quantum physicist wouldn’t say that cat is either dead OR alive, they’d say the cat is BOTH dead and alive at the same time, and that it only becomes one or the other once you open the box and have a look.
Sounds impossible, I know, how can a cat be both alive and dead at the same time? And why does looking make it become one or the other?
Well it’s only an analogy, it’s not a real experiment, Schrödinger didn’t put actual cats in boxes, at least not for science. But it is how the quantum world works. Quantum objects, like photons or electrons, can be two different things at the same time, both a particle and a wave. And the really weird bit is, they only become one or the other when we look at them.
Told you it was weird.
The human-scale world doesn’t behave like this, most of the time, it’s too complicated, too messy. But sometimes, just very occasionally, our world feels like the quantum world – your whole life boils down to a simple yes or no possibility, and all you have to do is look to make one of those possibilities real.
That’s why I’m in the toilet now. That’s why I just peed on this stick. I’m still not ready to look though, so lets get back to the quantum world while I gather my strength.
So how can a quantum cat be both dead and alive at the same time? Or how can an electron be both a particle and a wave? And why do they only become one or another when we look?
Well, my favourite explanation is that there are multiple universes, and when you open that box and look inside, the universe splits into two new versions. In one universe, a version of you sees a dead cat, in the other, a different version of you is looking at a cat who’s annoyed you’ve disturbed their box-time.
Which brings us back to my current situation. When I open my eyes and look at the test, which universe will I find myself in? There are two possibilities.
In one universe I open my eyes and see a single blue line. The test is functioning, but it’s negative, I’m not pregnant, I’m just late. In this universe my panic recedes and I go outside and argue some more with my husband. It’ll be a truly shitty Sunday. The weather will stay grey and oppressive and we won’t speak much. We’ll worry about the leak. I’ll go to bed early to get the day over with, I’ll look forward to going to work on Monday morning.
But in another universe I open my eyes and see two blue lines.
I rush back outside and find your father-to-be on the roof, playing with a bit of plastic pipe like he’s got any idea what he’s doing. I call him down. I’m shaking. He looks exasperated.
“What?” He asks, arms folded over his chest.
His face goes pale. He goes a bit wobbly and has to sit on the wet grass. Then he laughs. Then he gets up and hugs me and I start crying. I hate crying, but I can’t stop myself. The hole in the roof is forgotten, suddenly it doesn’t feel very important anymore.
Skip forwards some months and we’re on our way to the hospital, maxing out on fear and excitement. For twelve hours I groan and grind my teeth so hard they creak. Then I’m pushing and pushing. Then there’s that surreal moment when I hear you cry, then they place you on my chest. You open your eyes and look up at me and stop squalling. It’s my turn to cry.
So am I in the universe where I meet you, or the one with the shitty Sunday? There are only two possibilities: yes or no. I just need to look.