Aug. 12, 2013 at 12:06 PM ET
If you have a complex theoretical problem that you need to distill down to a set of universally recognizable and relatable symbols, you can't get much better than using a cat. As many a dancing cat-GIF or the recent revelation of "Cat Font" will show, the so-called "cat industrial complex" has evolved alongside the Internet to better help all of us articulate and understand the collective human experience.
But it wasn't always this easy. Back in 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had to problematize contemporary quantum mechanics not with a cat GIF, or even a real-life cat, but a thought experiment about a cat.
Schrödinger was born on August 12, 1887. This Monday, Google has chosen to honor him with one of the company's iconic Doodles — this one showing both sides of his famous paradox. As Schrodinger himself described the experiment:
A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
Schrödinger was an accomplished thinker — he won the Nobel Price for Physics in 1933, after all. But it took him another two years after his prestigious award to truly guarantee his legacy by showing once and for all that anything, no matter how complex, can be explained with cats.
Since Schrödinger first introduced his thought experiment, the quantum mechanics kitty has accrued innumerable references in pop culture — appearing in episodes of TV shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Futurama," showing up as an Easter Egg in popular video games like the "BioShock" and "Rock Band," and even having a song named after it by the band "Tears for Fears." Dead or alive, this cat certainly made it.
So next time you're reading through a long listicle that explains some complex cultural phenomenon or emotional experience by way of cat GIFs, you know who to thank. Erwin Schrödinger, we people of the Internet salute you.