Jonny’s cat-aclysm

Wilkin­son has de­cided to let his hair grow to rep­re­sent his new self

Finweek English Edition - - Nothing Sacred - STEPHEN MUL­HOL­LAND stephenm@fin­week.co.za

IT’S ONE THING to con­nect – as Eng­land rugby player Jonny Wilkin­son has done – Bud­dhism and quan­tum physics in the search for en­light­en­ment, par­tic­u­larly when a cat is in­volved. But it’s quite an­other to use the Wilkin­son path to per­sonal peace in or­der to come to terms with the un­cer­tainty of mar­kets. But let us try. First to Jonny, who fa­mously won the World Cup for Eng­land in Syd­ney against Aus­tralia in 2003 with a clin­i­cally ex­e­cuted drop goal. For rea­sons un­known, he then slipped into a state of al­most per­ma­nent de­spair. He de­vel­oped a per­va­sive sense of fear of fail­ure, and re­cently – in an in­ter­view to pro­mote his new book, Tackling Life – says he “didn’t know how to free my­self from it”.

Plagued by in­juries, Wilkin­son spent the time away from rugby study­ing quan­tum physics and Bud­dhism. En­ter Schrodinger’s Cat, a propo­si­tion de­signed in 1935 by physi­cist Er­win Schrodinger. You call that a “propo­si­tion” – al­though on­line dic­tio­nar­ies de­scribe it as a “(the­o­ret­i­cal) ex­per­i­ment”.

Any­way, here’s what Schrodinger asked us to imag­ine: We place a liv­ing cat into a steel cham­ber, along with a de­vice con­tain­ing a vial of hy­dro­cyanic acid. There is, in the cham­ber, a very small amount of a ra­dioac­tive sub­stance. If even a sin­gle atom of the sub­stance de­cays dur­ing the test pe­riod, a re­lay mech­a­nism will trip a ham­mer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat.

“The ob­server can­not know whether or not an atom of the sub­stance has de­cayed and, con­se­quently, can­not know whether the vial has been bro­ken, the hy­dro­cyanic acid re­leased and the cat killed. Since we can­not know, the cat is both dead and alive, ac­cord­ing to quan­tum law, in a su­per­po­si­tion of states.

“It is only when we break open the box and learn the con­di­tion of the cat that the su­per­po­si­tion is lost and the cat be­comes one or the other (dead or alive). This sit­u­a­tion is some­times called quan­tum in­de­ter­mi­nacy or the ob­server’s para­dox: the ob­ser­va­tion or mea­sure­ment it­self af­fects an out­come, so that the out­come as such does not ex­ist un­less the mea­sure­ment is made. (That is, there is no sin­gle out­come un­less it’s ob­served.)”

Thus, con­cluded one of the best fly-half’s the world has seen, it was all about the idea that an ob­server can change the world just by looking at some­thing: the idea that mind and re­al­ity are some­how in­ter­con­nected.

“It is dif­fi­cult to put into words, but it hit me like a steam train,” Wilkin­son says. “I came to un­der­stand that I had been liv­ing a life in which I barely fea­tured. I do not like re­li­gious la­bels, but there is a con­nec­tion be­tween quan­tum physics and Bud­dhism, which I was also get­ting into.

“Fail­ing at some­thing is one thing, but Bud­dhism tells us that it’s up to us how we in­ter­pret that fail­ure.”

So the ob­server can be the cre­ator of the re­al­ity. If ob­ser­va­tion doesn’t take place then there’s no re­al­ity. We’ll have to as­sume the cat is both alive and dead – a con­cept that would, in my case any­way, re­sult in in­san­ity. Some might say I must al­ready have been liv­ing with a cat that’s both dead and alive. Wilkin­son muses on: “The so-called Mid­dle Way is about see­ing ev­ery­thing as in­ter­con­nected – suc­cess and fail­ure, victory and de­feat. Who is to say that the foun­da­tions of suc­cess in the 2003 World Cup were not built on the fail­ures that went be­fore?”

Now, fi­nally, to the mar­kets. What can be more un­fath­omable than that thicket of im­pen­e­tra­ble crap that those high-fly­ers in fi­nan­cial ser­vices cob­ble to­gether and call, among other terms, de­riv­a­tives?

We won’t bother with all the acronyms they have in­vented to bam­boo­zle each other in their scram­ble for ob­scene bonuses based on noth­ing more than their abil­ity to de­liver a line of bull dust to some other greedy player bet­ter than the next char­la­tan can.

Now, re­turn­ing to Schrodinger’s Cat, it can be stated that there are life and death events tak­ing place deep within those im­pen­e­tra­ble mar­kets about which we’re un­aware. We can’t see them be­cause they haven’t yet been dis­played to us.

We know be­cause of the price sig­nals fly­ing about that all hell is break­ing loose. But we don’t know, and will not know, un­til the steel case is opened whether or not the cat has died. Un­til we have such aware­ness then that cat is, as we learned from Wilkin­son, both dead and alive. Our eco­nomic world as we know it can con­tinue largely as it has for the past eight or more decades (the cat lives) or we can sink into the mire of bank runs, mas­sive un­em­ploy­ment in the in­dus­trial world, soup lines, fam­i­lies walk­ing the streets home­less, cold and hun­gry.

What will we ob­serve when the steel tank is opened? Well, the cat will prob­a­bly be alive and those roughly 1,2bn who live in the ad­vanced world will con­tinue to en­joy their de­cent lifestyles.

How­ever, as the de­fault po­si­tion of hu­man­ity is poverty, the bulk of the world will con­tinue to suf­fer, walk­ing the streets, beg­ging on pave­ments, cold and hun­gry.

That’s the dead cat, yet to be given life by a change of sys­tem and Schrodinger can rest easy: the cat is both alive and dead.

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