The Up-Goer Five and Quantum Mechanics

Screen Shot 2013-01-22 at 19.26.30

What you see above is something called The Up-Goer Five Text Editor.

It’s an online text editor that uses only the 1,000 most common words in the English language as its word database, giving you a warning every time you type anything that isn’t included in that list. The idea comes from an episode of the popular xkcd web comic in which the author tried to explain the Saturn V NASA rocket using only such words.
Thus it became the Up-Goer Five.

Theo Sanderson, a parasitologist, thought it would be neat to make a text editor based on that idea, so people could try their hand at explaining complex topics with simple words. This has led to some fine examples of wordsmanship, such as one by a linguistics graduate who explained Saturn and its moons. Here’s a quote from it, talking about the Cassini probe:

People wanted to learn about the big ringed world and the smaller worlds that go around it, so they sent a computer into space with computer eyes and a computer nose and other parts to see and smell these worlds and tell us about them.

There are many other brilliant examples that you can find on the text editor page itself or on Twitter, searching for the hashtag #upgoerfive. I gave it a shot, trying to explain the significance of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment in the realm of quantum mechanics and its various interpretations. Here it is:

When a group of men decided to come up with an idea of how very small things work, they could not all agree on the same one. So, after some time, one of them made a story about a cat to show how the idea that most others believed in could make you imagine things that were not possible.

He thought of this cat sitting in a box, close to some very small stuff that you can’t see with your eyes which has half the chance of going through a change in the next hour. If that happened, some other very bad stuff that is locked away would be set free in the box, killing the cat.

The idea he was against says that the cat would be dead and living at the same time until you opened the box to take a look inside. This showed that you could carry the state of the very small stuff that had gone through a change and force it onto the cat, a much bigger thing that you can see and touch. Only when you looked in would the cat stop being in both states and finally settle into living or dying, and exactly because you had opened the box to see.

But a cat can’t be living and dead at the same time, can it? So this story became really well known and it has been used in many other stories, even though the person who made it wanted to show that the idea most others believed in was probably not perfect. Yet not many people who hear it know that and think that he only wanted to talk about strange cats.

It’s fun. You should try it yourself.


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