First, a theoretical physics lesson
One of the strange, hard-to-grasp conclusions of quantum mechanics is that the state of a sub-atomic particle after an interaction remains indeterminate until observed.
For example, an unstable atomic nucleus may randomly disintegrate through radioactive decay, but until it is observed, it’s state is both indeterminate and unknown. It exists in a limbo state of both “decayed” and “un-decayed.” But the moment we observe it, the nucleus “collapses” into a determinate state – it becomes either decayed or remains un-decayed, and we know it.
One of Einstein’s fellow physicists, Erwin Schrodinger, saw this as nonsense. At the macroscopic level in which we live, the state of everyday objects is decidedly known. They don’t exist in indeterminate states – either they are or they aren’t.
Schrodinger devised a famous thought experiment to pull the quantum world into the macroscopic world and show the paradox, or “entanglement,” as he called it. (Kids, don’t try this at home without adult supervision!)
Imagine a cat sealed in a box with a vial of poisonous gas. The stopper of the gas vial is controlled by the decay of a small sample of radioactive material. If the material decays, the vial stopper will open, and the cat dies. If not, the cat survives.
Now, according to the quantum physicist, until that box is opened and the contents observed, the radioactive material remains in an indeterminate state, and our cat exists smeared across the dead and alive states. The moment we open the box and observe, everything collapses into a determinate state – we have either a meowing moggy or a defunct feline.
Schrodinger argued that this was an absurdity. What do you think?
Now for a cell biology lesson
A cancer cell begins life as a normal cell. If that cell gets its DNA damaged in some way (hit by radiation, attacked by a free radical, or just a mix-up in copying the DNA during cell division), when it divides its children cells will be different, mutated. And some of these mutated cells may be cancerous.
Most get destroyed by our immune system, but some may survive.
Many, many cell generations (and many months or years) later, a surviving cell may have grown into a cluster of mutant cells large enough to disrupt the normal operation of the body. We get sick, the doctors diagnose us, we have cancer.
Now for the real world
I recently developed symptoms that showed something was clearly not right in my body. I was referred to a specialist who did the usual poking and prodding. He said I needed an endoscopy so he could have a closer look. His words were, “I’ll tell you up front, we are probably looking at cancer.”
My good wife promptly did the wifely thing, ringing round close friends and rellies. The well-intentioned response was often, “We will pray for you that it isn’t cancer.”
This got me thinking. Am I Schrodinger’s cat? Am I in an indeterminate state between cancer and not-cancer that can be tipped one way or the other? No, I either have or don’t have cancer – that state is already determined, just unknown to me. The outcome of the procedure won’t affect that. It only confirms it. I am not that cat.
Can you pray and expect that something that had its genesis and was determined many, many cell divisions ago be backtracked and undone as if it had never occurred?
Prayer for the future makes sense – how we handle the good or bad news, for the course of the disease, for God to control or override events, yes. But prayer to back up and change the past or the unknown present, what is already done and set in concrete? To make it never-was-cancer, even if it was?
Every second of our lives we open Schrodinger’s box as we move forward into our new present. And as each box is opened there is no going back. Time ratchets along.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
(The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam)
What do you think?
Oh, the outcome of the endoscopy? Meow!
• Stuart Parker is married to Ruth, attends Hamilton Central Baptist, and is an electronics engineer who flies microlights (and instructs).