“Superposition of States” by Ingrid Jendrzejewski

Ingrid Jendrzejewski


He called it a thought experiment, a hypothetical scenario
They call it a threatened miscarriage, a state of uncertainty.
constructed to discredit the Copenhagen interpretation
There is more bleeding than normal for pregnancy, but less
of quantum mechanics: the idea that quantum systems exist
than expected for spontaneous abortion. There is nothing
in a superposition of states until a measurement is made.
that can be done to change the outcome, but there are tests
Imagine a box containing a sample of radioactive material,
to determine what is happening. On two consecutive days,
a Geiger counter, a hammer, a vial of hydrocyanic acid,
blood is drawn from my veins, sent to the lab, and analyzed
and a cat. If the the radioactive material decays, it activates
for the levels of human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone
the Geiger counter which in turn activates the hammer,
produced by embryos. If the level goes up, the baby is alive.
shattering the vial and releasing the poison. The cat dies.
If it goes down, the baby has died. Right now, I’m waiting.
But if the Geiger counter detects nothing, nothing happens.
I’m waiting for the lab to process the results, I’m waiting
Schrödinger’s cat lives. Now, imagine the box is closed.
for the results to be passed to my doctor, and I’m waiting
Radioactive decay occurs when the nucleus of an unstable
for her phone call, the call in which she will open the box,
atom emits energy; it is a quantum phenomenon, and thus,
tell me what has been detected, collapse all possibilities
our radioactive sample exists, according to Copenhagen,
into a single certainty: dead or alive. I know that my blood
in a superposition of states until a measurement is made.
has already told its story to other observers, but the results
Thus, the Geiger counter both detects and doesn’t detect
of a measurement, asserts the Copenhagen interpretation,
radioactive decay; the hammer both smashes and sleeps;
cannot benefit another observer unless they are relayed to her
the vial both shatters and remains whole. And thus, until
at less than or equal to the speed of light. So at this moment,
an act of observation, until we look inside the box, the cat
I feel this baby in my womb, both developing and decaying,
is simultaneously dead and alive. Absurd, said Schrödinger,
both flourishing and failing, simultaneously dead and alive,
this notion of simultaneous life and death. The cat is either
and I’m dreading the phone’s ring in case it’s the wrong result,
alive or dead, not both together; surely, the cat’s life must
in case we open the box and the cat is dead. Absurd as it is,
be independent from the act of observation. Surely, living
I hold that having a baby that’s both alive and dead is better
is living, death is death.
than having no baby at all.

from Rattle #54, Winter 2016
2016 Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist

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Ingrid Jendrzejewski: “I wrote the first draft of this poem while waiting for blood test results that would determine whether or not I was having a miscarriage. I have a background in physics, and somehow, this abstruse thought experiment about quantum superposition provided me with a way to approach the terrible confusion of thoughts and emotions that I had been trying—unsuccessfully—to untangle. I have never felt more intimately connected to either poetry or science than when writing this piece.” (website)

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