Tag Archives: Asimov

Words in a Box :
A Literary Gedankenexperiment

Imagine that in order to determine how much money to pay the author (very wishful thinking), the local independent bookseller had to first calculate the velocity of the books as they flew off the shelves (more wishful thinking for the author and the indie bookseller). I’ll also add the constraint: the only way to make this calculation would be to hurl another book at them as they flew by, which would also require the bookseller to know the books’ location. After this thwack with the other book, the bookseller would know the velocity of the books and could calculate the royalty, but the exact location of the books to deliver to the customer would be in question–somewhere in a range of probable locations in proximity to where the books collided.


As a way to express the unique and somewhat ridiculous mathematics involved in describing quantum systems (something I won’t attempt here), and to illustrate the fallacy of applying a quantum analysis to a non quantum object, in 1935 the physicist Erwin Schrödinger conceived of a hypothetical experiment, (no animals were actually harmed): shut a cat in a sealed box next to a piece of radioactive substance small enough such that the probability of it producing one particle of radioactive decay in one hour was the same as it producing no particles at all. He would then outfit the box with a Geiger counter rigged to a hammering device situated over a tube of poisonous gas. If the counter detected a radioactive particle, the hammer would fall, shattering the tube of gas which would kill the cat. Applying the same probability equations used to describe quantum states, after a time, the cat would be both dead and alive simultaneously.


Schrödinger's Cat

However, after opening the box, the observer would definitely see either a hot and pissed off (but still alive) cat or dead one, certainly not both. This gedankenexperiment has been interpreted numerous ways. Some theorized that a quantum state can only be known at the time of measurement (when the box is finally opened). “The many worlds interpretation” has a bifurcating universe at the point the box is opened, one with the observer looking at a dead cat and one with the observer looking at a living cat.

Since literature seems to be governed by cultural appraisal rather than physical law unlike cats and subatomic  particles. It would seem possible for a work of fiction to be in both a Literary and a genre state simultaneously, perhaps until the observer opens it, an observer with a predetermined list of expectations.


The litany of differences is long and varied depending on who is asked.


Genre vs. literary: craft vs. art–plot vs. character–conspicuous vs. subtle– escapism vs. illumination–aliens vs. eighteenth-century hand maidens–Hugo vs. Pulitzer–making money vs. critical acclaim.

There have been writers who have breached this genre barrier, Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut come to mind, but for this, I’m going subatomic, to the words themselves.


In this literary gedankenexperiment, I propose to take the words from two famous novels, one literary and one genre, throw them in a box (a shoebox perhaps), and instead of radiation, I’ll subject them to agitation by placing the box on the washing machine during the spin cycle and extrapolate the result of two sample sentences from the originals.


From East of Eden – Steinbeck These too are of a burning color-not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.” 





From I, Robot – Asimov He’s the best darn robot money can buy and I’m damned sure he set me back half a year’s income. Mrs. Weston was a bit hazy about the insides of a robot…” 





Result: I’m damned, burning, not gold, orange, now a liquid, might be cream, a bit hazy on the buy. These poppies are pure gold, the best, half a year’s income for Mrs. Weston. And he’s like a robot about the money.





*There are a few words lost to entropy in this process.
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