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Online Video, Quantum Physics and Cats

While doing research about online video, I stumbled across a post on StreamingMedia.com about the ubiquitous cat theorem.  Being a physicist, the first thing that popped into my head was “Is that anything like Schrodinger’s cat?”

Back in the early to mid-1900’s, quantum physics (the study of things smaller than atoms) was controversial. Erwin Schrödinger designed the now famous thought experiment to expose what he felt were the problems introduced by the conflict between classical physics (laws that apply to the world of everything bigger than an atom) and quantum physics. A simplified version of the experiment goes something like this:

A cat is placed into a black box with a vial of hydrocyanic acid and a trigger that will break the vial of acid and kill the cat (please note this is just a thought experiment and as far as I know no one has ever performed this experiment with an actual cat). The trigger is random. That is, the person watching the black box doesn’t know if the trigger has been pulled or not. There is no way to know if the cat is dead or alive – without opening the box. And that is where the conflict enters.

Until the box is opened, the cat is said to exist in a state that is both dead and alive. This isn’t possible in the everyday world as we know it. Something is either dead or alive. There is no way for something to be both at the same time. But in the realm of quantum mechanics, that is how everything exists – in states of probability rather than fixed, known states. Another example would be the chair you’re sitting in now. Obviously the chair is real or you’d be on the floor. But at the quantum level, the chair is made up of mostly empty space and it may or may not actually be a chair at all.

It’s a conflict that still puzzles physicists today, though the controversy no longer exists – just the search on how to unify the world of quantum and classical physics remains.

800px-Schrodinger_cat_in_box

How does this relate to online video and cats?

Back to the original question of whether the ubiquitous cat theorem is anything like Schrodinger’s cat. In a way it is.

If you aren’t familiar with the idea, the ubiquitous cat theorem states that there is a cat video for every known word. Here’s how it works. If you Google any word then add “cat video” to the search you’ll get a list of videos that involve that word and cats in some manner. To test the idea I used one of the many random word generators to pick the words to use. The set of three words returned to me were “thunder”, “slot machine”, and “cheese”.  So do these cat videos exist or not?

Thunder returned numerous videos immediately, but mostly about the TV show Thundercats (but that counts right?) but also one video of a cat called Thunder. Slot machine returned pages and pages of results of cat themed slot machines, which technically count according to the theorem. But I wasn’t satisfied so I continued to look and somewhere around page five of the results I found a video of a cat playing a slot machine. Cheese was by far the easiest cat video to find. The first result was a video of “Kitty loves her cheese”.

My conclusion? The ubiquitous cat theory is just like Schrodinger’s cat. Until the search is performed, we don’t know if there is a cat video using every word or not. But the probability of there being a related cat video is quite high – you’ll find numerous results if you Google “Schrodingers cat video”.

There’s no official reporting of how many cat videos are in the hundreds of hours of video uploaded to the Internet each day. But one look at YouTube tells you that a great number of videos are cat related. In fact, in the US there is an annual Internet Cat Video Festival, where people gather to watch compilations of the best cat videos. Last year they had over 13,000 people in the grandstand.

One fact that is certain is that online video grows in popularity and usage every year. And it appears that cats will always have their place in the history of online video, and probably its future as well.

Oliver Burt

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