The Wave Function Collapses

by Carl Strang

Quantum physics is based on equations that express probabilities and uncertainties. But when certain measurements are taken and some facts acquired, a common expression is to say the wave function has collapsed. Such became the case yesterday with Schrödinger’s woodpecker. As I mentioned on Monday, I had reason to believe a woodpecker I heard calling on Saturday at Mayslake Forest Preserve was a pileated woodpecker. But it only called once, and I never saw it, so I simultaneously held in mind the possibility that it was another species. That changed yesterday.

It was right here. If only I’d lifted the camera instead of the binoculars.

I was crossing the mansion lawn after sampling stream invertebrates (more on that later) when a big bird flew overhead and landed on a tree trunk in front of me. The bird’s size, and the black wings fanned for braking with a white star in the middle of each, was enough. I should have lifted the camera. Instead my instinct was to raise the binoculars, and I got a nice clear view of a pileated woodpecker, which by then had turned its profile and was looking at me. By the time I lowered the binoculars and got the camera fumbled into place the bird was gone. I spent my lunch break looking for it but got no second chance.

The wave function had collapsed. I found myself thinking of variations on the probability theme. My space-time path just happened to intersect that of the woodpecker at a point. A physicist might express this in terms of world tubes. What were the chances that this would happen? Probability also relates to luck. I felt very lucky to have seen a pileated woodpecker in such a highly unlikely place. But then during my lunch break I felt very unlucky not to get a photo. That bird stuck around for 5 days. I can’t imagine it staying much longer. But if it does, and I do get a photo, you can bet I’m going to squeeze yet a third blog entry out of it!

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2 Comments

  1. Hal Atherton said,

    April 14, 2011 at 7:36 am

    I’m looking forward to it for sure.

  2. jomegat said,

    April 14, 2011 at 8:11 am

    A pair of pileateds hang out at my Dad’s house in KY. They very cautiously visit a suet feeder he maintains just outside the window behind his TV. He has never been able to get a photo of them, and this is over about a five-year period. As soon as he so much as flinches a pinky to reach for a camera, it’s gone. Maybe this summer when I go to visit I’ll set him up with CHDK’s motion detector.


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