Saving Schrödinger’s Cat

To learn about the backstories and histories forming the backbone of Saving Schrödinger’s Cat, see the descriptions below — but only after you’ve read the story. [SPOILER ALERT]

Objects found in the story Saving Schrödinger's Cat

The Dark Genome

In 2003, the Human Genome Project was completed and all of our known genes have now been mapped. However, there is much more to the story of DNA. As of 2021, we know that the entirety of our mapped genes only account for 1-2 % of the total DNA in our cells. The rest of our DNA (98-99%) is largely a mystery. If not coding for active genes what does the rest of our genome do?

The “Dark Genome” as it’s been called is ripe with a number of interesting theories. Some of these non-coding DNA sequences might:

  1. Represent limitations in our current technology. This is a little like having a jig-saw puzzle composed of identical small squares and we can’t see the pattern on the other side.
  2. Assist in regulating the expression of an adjacent coding sequence (i.e., the dark piece might be involved in turning on and off a gene we do understand).
  3. Serve as a hot spots for rapid mutations. For example, if severe pressure is applied to a species (e.g., disease, famine) these sequences might allow for rapid evolutionary change.
  4. Placeholders of past evolutionary change.

It will interesting to how this story develops over the next several decades.

Phosgene and other chemical weapons of World War I

World War I is estimated to have caused 20 million deaths and an additional 21 million wounded. Of these numbers, chemical weapons were responsible for 100,000 deaths and over a million wounded. The three main chemicals used were chlorine (Cl2), mustard gas (blistering agents), and phosgene (COCl2) — with phosgene responsible for about 85% of the casualties.

On the battlefield, when the wind was right, these agents could be released toward the enemy lines from large compressed tanks or fired in artillery shells (and hopefully the meteorologist got it right).

Specialized combat units skilled in deploying these agents were developed.
Phosgene was a particularly insidious agent because the gas was colorless with only a faint odor of freshly mown hay. Soldiers could inhale a lethal dose before they even sensed the danger. Then over the next 24 – 48 hours, the damaged lung alveoli (the small air exchange sacs) would become leaky and the victim would slowly asphyxiate as their lungs filled with fluid.

Although both sides of the conflict used gas weapons, one chemist has earned infamy for his enthusiasm. Fritz Haber (1869-1934), who won the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the nitrogen-fixation process of turning nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia, believed that chemical weapons were more humane than bombs and bullets, and if sufficiently effective on a mass scale they could shorten the war and, thus, save lives.

Haber’s story is also one of paradox.

His Nobel Prize work has sparked a massive wave of artificial fertilizer production, and a corresponding explosive growth in the world’s population. Currently, it is estimated that half of the world’s population is fed as a result of Haber’s nitrogen-fixation process.


Objects found in the story Saving Schrödinger's Cat
Objects found in the story Saving Schrödinger's Cat

Marie Curie

Marie Curie (née Maria Sklodowska) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person to do it twice. She shared the 1903 award in physics with her husband Pierre, and Henri Becquerel for the discovery of radiation. In 1906, Pierre’s skull was crushed in a tragic horse carriage accident on the streets of Paris.

Galvanized by her husband’s death Marie strode forward, determined to see their work follow through to uncover the secrets within radioactive atoms. Unfortunately, the conditions in Curie’s labs were fraught with hazards that no one at the time fully understood.

Becquerel died in 1908, at the age of 56; cause unknown. Seven years earlier he’d received severe burns to his chest from a vial of purified radium he’d inadvertently carried in his vest pocket for two weeks.

In 1911 Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of the elements of radium and polonium. During the carnage of World War I she applied herself as a pioneer in the development and deployment of mobile x-ray units which could be driven to battlefield hospitals. During her first trip to a battlefield hospital in 1914, she was accompanied by her teenage daughter Irène, who functioned as an assistant. Together they taught others and the use of the life-saving technology rapidly expanded.

The Radium Institute in Paris was opened in 1919 and was soon enlarged to include medical units, within which cancer patients were treated with ionizing radiation.

Marie Curie worked tirelessly. She communicated with other scientists, such as Ernest Rutherford, to amplify the investigations to which they were collectively committed.

Marie Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia/bone marrow failure due to radiation exposure. She was reportedly buried in a lead-lined coffin. An article from 2015 estimated that some of her belongings would be radioactive for another 1,500 years.

Irène and her husband Frédéric Curie-Joliot won the Nobel Prize in 1935, for their discovery of artificial (induced) radiation. Irène died in 1956 at the age of 58 from acute leukemia due to radiation exposure.

Ernest Rutherford

Born in New Zealand in 1871, he later moved to Canada and then England. In 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of radioactive half-life. Beyond the understanding this discovery shed on radiation, it influenced many other fields (e.g., geophysics).

The atom was his life’s passion and he dug deep into the mysteries within.

The famous gold-foil radiation experiments that he conducted with Marsden and Geiger showed that the atom had an extremely tiny, but very dense nucleus. The rest of the atom had enormous shells of empty space where the electrons could be found. He couldn’t yet prove what the nucleus was but he had an uncanny sense that something powerful was there.

His research was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, but he again demonstrated remarkable intellectual flexibility and applied himself to acoustic technologies to detect submarines.

Shortly after the war ended, he fired a beam of alpha-radiation (He++) at a sealed tube of nitrogen and was able to prove the existence of a new particle, the proton, which he named in 1920.

𝜶 + 14N → 17O + p

It was also the first known artificial transmutation of one element into another. Nitrogen has been converted to oxygen.

In 1919, he was appointed as director of Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge where he continued his atomic research. Rutherford, like Curie, didn’t fully comprehend the dangers of radiation and was known to keep a lump of radioactive pitchblende ore in his pocket and desk. Years later his desk and office cost a small fortune to decontaminate.

Ernest Rutherford was a gregarious, larger-than-life character who was known for his loud voice and clumsy hands. Although he drove his students and assistant professors hard, he was also a caring and compassionate soul.

In 1932, his associate James Chadwick identified the neutron that Rutherford had long theorized must be present in the atom’s nucleus. Chadwick won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for this discovery.

In 1937, Rutherford was up in a tree in his yard, pruning a limb, when he fell. Immediately afterward, he experienced terrible abdominal pain and vomiting. His doctor suspected a loop of bowel had become trapped in a hernia and operated. The operative findings, however, were inconclusive. Rutherford’s pain and vomiting never went away and he died two days later.

Ernest Rutherford never saw the discovery of artificial nuclear fission in 1938 or the profound ways his work shaped the world. His ashes are entombed in Westminster Abbey near Sir Issac Newton and Lord Kelvin.

Objects found in the story Saving Schrödinger's Cat

Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger was born in Vienna, Austria in 1887. Similar to other scientists mentioned in Saving Schrödinger’s Cat, he was a multi-dimensional intellectual giant and a complex person. Early in his career he was attracted to quantum mechanics and scientifically is best known for the Schrödinger wave equation for which he won the Nobel Prize.

He was a contemporary of Albert Einstein and together they shared a dream to uncover a unified field theory to explain electromagnetism, gravity, and nuclear forces (strong and weak), which to this day remains unfulfilled.

He is also famous for the Schrödinger Cat Box paradox, which he first penned in a letter to Einstein in 1935. In constructing the thought experiment he was making fun of the concept of quantum superposition, which specifies that an atom simultaneously exists in two mutually exclusive states until it is measured and it is the act of observing/measuring that forces the atom to decide which state to be in. The cat is alive and dead at the same time.

In addition to his contributions to theoretical physics, Schrödinger explored the psychology of color perception and had a keen interest in philosophy where his views were influenced by Schopenhauer and Spinoza.

Schrödinger had a wife and a mistress (who was married), and the three traveled and lived together quite openly — which caused a bit of a kerfuffle at Oxford.

As the National Socialists in Germany rose to power, Schrödinger, Einstein, and other Jewish scientists were persecuted. Those who could, fled. Einstein and Rutherford influenced governments and helped finance the escape of many.

Further Reading. These non-fiction biographical and historical books provide interesting insight into the time period, and the scientific personalities and their achievements.
  1. Erwin Schrödinger and the Quantum Revolution, by John Gribbin.
  2. Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, by David Lindley.
  3. A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford, by Richard Reeves.
  4. The Secret War Between the Wars: MI5 in the 1920s and 1930s, by Kevin Quinlan.
  5. Albert Einstein (Giants of Science series), by Kathleen Krull.
  6. Madame Curie: A Biography, by Eve Curie.