• Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022

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Can quantum mechanics help a UK council plan when to collect bins?

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Josie Ford

The order of not things

Cambridge – of Cambridgeshire, not Massachusetts, before anyone jumps in – is famed as the academic home of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, three philosophers who did much to elucidate, not to say obfuscate, language, logic and meaning. It is very much in their spirit, we assume, that Cambridge City Council recently advertised an extra rubbish bin collection following staff absences, stating “bins will be collected in the order in which they were previously not collected”.

“Is it quantum mechanics then that enables us to determine the order in which things don’t happen?” asks Alison Litherland, we imagine hovering indecisively over her bins. Quite possibly. Our starting point must be the following question: if a bin isn’t collected, but no one sees it not collected, has it been not collected at all?

In purely practical terms, the only way of finding out is by looking in the bin, making this a particularly pure instantiation of Erwin Schrödinger’s cat paradox. Maybe Schrödinger’s trash didn’t have quite the same ring to it. As far as your problem goes, Alison, we fear that repeated measurement of identical bins may allow you to build up a picture of when it wasn’t collected, but this will only have statistical validity.

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Poet didn’t know it

Feedback is delighted to find, while searching for something else, that the physicist James Clerk Maxwell (died 1879) is listed as an author on the New Scientist website (born circa 1996).

Further investigation reveals a series of poems published by Maxwell in these pages in 2011. We are somewhat lacking context, but his Valentine By a Telegraph Clerk (Male) to a Telegraph Clerk (Female) bears rereading, with its culminating verse: “Through many a volt the weber flew,/And clicked this answer back to me;/I am thy farad staunch and true,/Charged to a volt with love for thee.”

Sweet, if of its time. Following our musings on how old the internet thinks you can be (26 February), at 180, we may have found our oldest contributor.

Standard elephants

Metrologists at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris may still be basking in the replacement, in 2019, of the international prototype kilogram – a platinum-iridium hulk that would feel exactly like 1 kilogram if dropped on your foot – by a fancy-schmantzy definition in terms of various physical constants. But as regular Feedback readers know, they are missing the… in the room. The elephant is well-established as the actual international standard unit of mass.

Proof positive, a report from The Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, Canada, sent in by Doug Thomson. A clean-up after storms there in January required the removal of “145,000 tonnes of snow – about 20,000 large, frozen elephants worth”. We can only imagine the difficulties of dealing with these homesick and discomfited beasts. The icing on the elephants clearly adds something to their weight, as we conventionally take an adult male African bush elephant to weigh about 6 tonnes.

Even as we hear calls for a standard prototype elephant kept under glass somewhere growing louder, news reaches us of a breakaway movement in New South Wales, Australia. Many of you highlight news of the seizure of 9.7 hectares’ worth of illicitly grown tobacco at Koraleigh “weighing the equivalent of 13 bulldozers”.

How many bulldozers of tobacco fit into Sydney Harbour, we wonder. Meanwhile, Brian Horton consults the delightful website “What Things Weigh” to find bulldozers range from a baby 8 (good old non-metric) tons to a fully grown 180 tons. Suffice to say, the amount of tobacco seized at Koraleigh was some 42 standard elephants.

His mummy’s voice

The interwebs have delighted themselves recently at a story first reported by New Scientist in 2020, that researchers have recreated the voice of an Egyptian mummy held at Leeds City Museum, UK.

The experience is slightly hard to reproduce on the printed page, but oddly, in some of the clips now circulating, the mummy is clearly saying “UUUUGRHH”, whereas two years ago it was a far more refined “EEEEERGH”. Mummies could presumably have made more than one sound, says a colleague – not unreasonably, with the qualification “when alive”. “This is the replication crisis writ large,” says another, damningly.

Vive la résistance!

Much as we try to stop buttered toast falling on our pages, right side up or no, still it rains down. But we are in a philosophical frame of mind, so we are grateful to J. Feralco for the reminder of a corollary to Murphy’s Law, first established by humorist Paul Jennings in the 1940s: “The chance of the bread falling with the buttered side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”

This came as part of his Report on Resistentialism, a school of philosophy encapsulated by the phrase “Les choses sont contre nous” – “things are against us” – established on Paris’s Left Bank by “bespectacled, betrousered, two-eyed” thinker Pierre-Marie Ventre. Resistentialism holds that there are limits to the sway humans can hold in a world of largely hostile, uncooperative things. It is worth rummaging around for the whole essay online as a parable for These Uncertain Times.

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