Schrodinger's Field Goal: The Paradox of Quantum Mechanics and the NFL

Ronan MehiganContributor IMay 12, 2009

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27:  Kicker Scott Norwood #11 and  quarterback Frank Reich #14 of the Buffalo Bills walk n the field during Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants at Tampa Stadium on January 27, 1991 in Tampa, Florida.  The Giants won 20-19.  (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

I had a look at the similarities between General Relativity and the NFL in my last article, so this time I wanted to consider the tiny microscopic world of the quantum universe and wonder what connections it could possibly have to the game of football.

If some of the concepts of relativity seem baffling at first, (time dilation, length contraction, etc.), then they are nothing when compared to the strange behaviour of the tiny subatomic particles in the realm of the quantum.

I believe it was the great American physicist Richard Feynman who once said....

"If you think you fully understand quantum mechanics....then you haven't thought about it hard enough."

Strange behaviour, such as electrons exhibiting both wave-like and particle-like behaviour, sub-atomic particles tunneling through energy wells, quantum entanglement, or "spooky action at a distance," as Einstein described it.

Our understanding of the quantum world has given rise to many technological advances, such as computers, microelectronics, lasers, etc., but what connection could it have to football?

It was while watching Superbowl XXV in 1991 that I first realised how the world of the NFL and the world of the microscopic were actually not too dissimilar.

As Scott Norwood lined up the 47-yard field goal at the end regulation, the Super Bowl was hanging in the balance. Giants fans and Bills fans were caught in this moment together, transfixed at the proceedings on the field. Will he make the field goal, will the Bills finally win their first Super Bowl, or will Bill Parcells lead the Giants to victory?

It was at this moment that I began to think about Austrian physicist Erwin Schrofindger.
Schrodinger was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics in the early part of the 20th century. He is most famous for his wave-equation and his iconic thought-experiment often referred to as "Schrodinger's Cat."

Schrodinger devised this thought experiment to illustrate, in his opinion, the problem of the "Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics." In the experiment, a cat is placed inside a sealed box along with a container of poison, some radioactive material, and a simple detector. The decay of the radioactive material is considered the quantum event. If the detector reads that the decay has occurred, then the poison is released, killing the cat. Conversely, if the decay does not occur, then no poison is released and the cat is alive and well.

According to Schrodinger, if the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then from the point of view of an observer outside the box, there is no way to determine whether the cat is either dead or alive. In the realm of the quantum world, the cat takes on the superposition of both states, it effectively is simultaneously both dead and alive. Only by the observer looking inside the box will the superposition be broken and the cat be in a well defined classical state of being either dead or alive.

As an avid football fan, this concept hit home for me. There have been many occasions when I have been watching the Miami Dolphins on TV and the game has come down to a last-minute field goal attempt. My obsession with the Dolphins has reached the stage where I am more terrified at the prospect of losing than being excited at the potential joy of winning. A painful loss will linger much more than a thrilling victory.

During these decisive game deciding moments, it is often that I will momentarily turn away from the TV screen, maybe muting the volume or covering my eyes with my hands. I foolishly believe if I don't find out the result then nothing bad can happen.

So when Scott Norwood lined up the potential game winning field goal in Superbowl XXV, I thought about the Giants and Bills fans. Maybe there were some Bills fans who diverted their eyes from the action on the field. In a sense, they were creating a macroscopic football equivalent of Schrodinger's thought experiment.

In that brief moment, the Bills would be in a superposition of being both Super Bowl champions and Super Bowl losers....what a momentous feeling that must have been. Only by returning their gaze to the field of play would the Bills fans break the entanglement and, as they say, the rest is history.

But what kind of history is this, where the Bills go on to lose the next three Super Bowls? Could it be the only history? Maybe quantum mechanics can save the Bills, too.

In 1972, Princeton physicist Hugh Everett formulated the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in which both states (the alive cat and the dead cat) can persist but are decoherent from each other. In this case, when the box is opened to reveal Shrodinger's cat, the universe effectively splits in two, one containing the dead cat and one containing the alive cat.

You see where this is going, Bills fans!! Although strictly speaking a field goal attempt is not really a true quantum event, it is still nice to dream. In some alternative quantum universe, Scott Norwood's faithful kick was not wide right, and Marv Levy is now polishing four Super Bowl championship rings.

The world of quantum mechanics can be very strange, indeed.