Essential Intellectual References Weekly #6

Small Animals and the Boxes We Put Them In

Zack S. Westby Zack S. West

Welcome back to Essential Intellectual References Weekly, where I take two concepts from the realm of academia and boil them down into a flavorless paste. Like an Ivy League Olive Garden, with unlimited breadsticks of comedy. This week, I talk about humanity's obsession with putting small animals in boxes and trying to kill them with science. Which, I believe, is the plot of Portal 3.

Science: We Do What We Must Because We Can

Skinner Box

The term 'Skinner Box' is used to describe what in science is called an Operant Conditioning Chamber. Though I admit, I was disappointed when I found out it wasn't a slaughterhouse for leather instead of meat. This is how it works: Take a box, put a rat in it. In the box with the rat is a button and food dispenser. When the rat pushes the button, he gets food. That's step 1.

Step 2 is where it gets devious. When the rat pushes the button and gets food, he only pushes the button when he's hungry. In step 2, they keep the button, but it only sometimes gives out food. There is no pattern. Suddenly, even though the rat has enough food, he keeps pressing the button. Then, in step 3, the electrocute him if he doesn't press the button for long enough. If you thought I was joking about the Glados comparison, you clearly don't pay enough attention to how science is actually done.

Here's the thing about the Skinner Box. It explains a lot about humanity. When we are rewarded with consistency, we take only what we need. When we don't understand the cause and effect of the situation, though, it consumes us. A lot of people use Slot Machines as a great example of human Skinner Boxes. While I agree, I think there are even more prevalent examples.

Nightclubs are Skinner Boxes where the button is hitting on women and the food is sex. We keep going back, even though we can't quite tell how to make it work every time. Internet Freedom Fighter Cory Doctrow recently did a fantastic lecture on how Facebook is a Skinner Box that teaches children to forefit their privacy, based on the random positive stimulus of people paying attention to them. Even Religion was born from a Skinner Box relationship between humans and their environment- we didn't understand why weather changed or the sun rose and fell, so we assigned the random stimuli a pattern we could accept, and continued 'praying' until the food came out.

But now that you understand it, maybe you can break the cycle. Every time you do something, ask yourself "Am I at all reminiscent of a rat in a box right now?" If the answer is yes, maybe you should rethink that action. But even if it is, at least you aren't Schrodinger's Cat.

Because Schrodinger did not just take cute photos and post them on the internet.

Schrodinger's Cat

If you are a fan of cats, this is a sad story. However, if you are a fan of science, then it's just an awesome story that involves theoretically killing cats. For science!

Many people say that the story of Schrodinger's Cat is a paradox, but really it's just a thought experiment that doesn't totally make sense with the way we view time and death. So, before you go 'that is not a thing that makes sense!' let me get to the end. Erwin Schrodinger was an Austrian Physicist who set out to prove that quantum physics was slightly less confusing than we thought. It did not work.

The experiment goes like this. Imagine a cat. Now imagine that cat is in a sealed box with something that might kill him at any moment, but has an equal probability to not kill him (the original experiment used a poison triggered by discrete radioactive decay). The box is sealed, there's no way to see whether the cat is alive or dead. Until you open that box, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.

Damn, theoretically live cat.  Stepping on theoretically dead cat's face?  That's just cold.

Right. Confusing. I'm with you. Okay, so here's some other ways that the same theory can be applied, slightly less violently, just for you guys. When playing poker, the next card in the deck is simultaneously all other cards left in the deck until it is drawn and shown. Until you ask that girl you like if she'll go out with you, you live in a constant state of both approval and rejection. If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around to see it, then until a boy scout troupe happens by, that tree is both upright and fallen at the same time. The sound it made is irrelevant.

That make a little bit more sense? The experiment has had a huge impact on probability as well as quantum physics, where we often cannot observe things we know to be going on, and often it seems that the unobserved bodies are acting simultaneously in opposite ways. It's the reverse of Heisenberg, in a way. Rather than you effecting it by observing it, not observing it allows it to do things that it wouldn't be able to do observed. Two sides of the same coin, if you will.

And now that you have the context, the dirtiest intellectual joke ever:

Schrodinger's Cat House

The only place where the hooker on the other side is both dead and alive.