Schrodinger’s government

The present government is a classic example of the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox in action

It was impossible for scientists to calculate exactly when any individual atom would lose one or more of its electrons
It was impossible for scientists to calculate exactly when any individual atom would lose one or more of its electrons

You will surely all have heard of Schrodinger’s Cat… the second most famous cat in the world after Sylvester. But if not, I’ll outline the basic paradox in as far as I understand it, and in as few words as I can.

At a public lecture in 1935, Swiss physicist Erwin Schrodinger proposed a hypothetical scenario to explain the impossibility of predicting random events at quantum level. One example out of many would be radioactive decay. Radioactive elements have what is known as a ‘half-life’ – a period of time (differing vastly from one element to another) in which half the element’s atoms will have decayed.

But while scientists were able accurately to predict that time frame, it proved impossible to calculate exactly when any individual atom would lose one or more of its electrons. These particles are simply too small to be physically observed by any known apparatus; and in any case, the act of ‘observing’ them would itself have an impact on their behaviour.

In the unfathomable world of quantum mechanics – whose written language is mathematics – this uncertainty is translated into a +/- situation. To all intents and purposes, sub-atomic particles can indeed occupy contrasting states at the same time. They can even occupy different spaces at the same time (an ability denied to all non-quantum things… unless you count someone like Franco Debono, who seems to be present in all places, at all times). 

Part of the reason concerns the fact that ‘time’ and ‘space’ are experienced very differently at quantum level, where the smallest known entities in the universe can travel close to (or at) the speed of light. But this is the part where I get totally lost, so let’s stick with the explainable for now.

Schrodinger famously likened the situation of an unobservable, subatomic particle to that of a living cat, placed in a sealed box which could never be opened. This hypothetical box would also contain a ‘switch’ that could be accidentally triggered at any given moment by the cat. If (or when) triggered, the switch would release a lethal gas that would instantly kill the box’s feline occupant.

The question Schrodinger posed his students was this: without ever opening the box, what is the best estimate you can make of its contents at any given moment? The controversial answer he went on to propose is that the cat, under such circumstances, would have to be considered as ‘both dead and alive at the same time’.

Immediately, Schrodinger’s Cat ran into problems. The broader implications of this bizarre proposition went far beyond the physicist’s actual intentions; unwittingly he had opened the floodgates of a fascinating philosophical debate that has never been satisfactorily concluded.

Echoes of the quintessential ‘tree that fell in the forest’ were inevitably heard (or were they, if there was no one to witness the falling tree?) – raising questions such as: does ‘reality’ depend on being experienced/observed? Can something truly be said to be either ‘alive or dead’ – or, for that matter, ‘existent or non-existent’ – if there is no way of ascertaining either way? If not: what is life? What is death? What is existence? Etc., etc.

No wonder Schrodinger was upset. He had to spend the rest of his life trying to undo all the misconceptions created by that one, fatally ill-conceived classroom analogy.

All the same, however, Schrodinger’s Cat remains a wonderful image in its own right. And if the controversy surrounding it has refused to die down after more than 90 years, it is because the image has multiple uses outside the sphere of quantum mechanics. For instance, it can just as easily be used to illustrate the many absurdities and paradoxes in that other unfathomable branch of human science: politics.

The present government is, in fact, a classic example of the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox in action. Only in this case, the paradox does not concern life and death; it concerns the state of being both ‘corrupt’ and ‘non-corrupt’ at the same time.

Yesterday, a US-based news portal called ‘Politico’ – no prizes for guessing the area of specialisation – ran a small feature casting doubts on Malta’s ability to steer anti-graft legislation, when it takes over the rotating EU presidency next year. 

The main argument was that the Maltese government cannot be trusted to enact legislation against corruption and money-laundering, when two of its own top exponents – one of them a senior Cabinet Minister – were mired up to their eyeballs in suspicion of corruption and money-laundering.

To illustrate this point, the article quoted Transparency International’s Carl Dolan, who said that:  “The prospect of Malta steering legislation that aims to eradicate corporate secrecy in the EU once again highlights that the Council has no formal procedures for dealing with any conflicts of interest that might arise.”

It quoted a German Green MEP as saying: “This is all very embarrassing… We will raise this whole mess in the [European Parliament’s special] Panama Papers committee. Malta has to get serious. It has to tidy up in order for the whole European financial infrastructure to gain credibility.”

Above all, it quoted the vice-chair of the EP’s Panama Papers committee – a Socialist, and therefore theoretically an ally of the Muscat administration – thus: “Malta is definitely a case for particular attention, not just because of allegations against the prime minister’s chief of staff and the minister […] but also because Malta is already on our radar.

“Malta is one of the jurisdictions in the EU that has a very lax system of incorporation where it is very easy for anyone who wants to fool the anti money-laundering authorities, they can set up a company like a Russian doll and can make ultimate beneficial owners hidden.”

Taken together, these three indictments add up to one single inescapable fact: serious concern does exist at European level, about the Maltese government’s ability to assume the presidency with the stench of corruption still emanating from its every pore.  

Ah, but what do these unenlightened European entities know about the complex dynamics of Malta’s parallel quantum political universe? Such concerns may exist all they like, in another dimension called ‘Europe’. But here in Malta they are as non-existent as Schrodinger’s Cat… even if Malta technically belongs to the same European Union, and therefore is technically subject to European standards and rules.

This is the government’s answer, as quoted by Politico: “The Mizzi and Schembri case… has absolutely no bearing, connection or impact whatsoever on Malta’s EU presidency or its role in steering through new [anti-money laundering] proposals and legislation...”

Erm… now that I look at the situation again, I find Schrodinger’s Cat a lot easier to grasp. It is less taxing on my mental faculties to accept that a cat might be both dead and alive at once… than that the above glaring contradictions can possibly both be true at the same time.

Is the Panama case an obstacle to Malta’s EU presidency next year, or isn’t it? Everyone in Europe says ‘yes, it is’; the Maltese government says ‘no, it isn’t’. That is precisely the sort of paradox than can only ever be explained through quantum mechanics. Here in the physical, non-quantum universe, however… sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that.  The government may think it has successfully swept the issue under the carpet. But in reality, it hasn’t. 

Nor was this the only example of a sub-atomic European member country somehow managing to occupy two utterly incompatible states at the same time. The same article also quotes a spokesman for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as saying that: “We are taking this issue very seriously.” 

Strangely, however, the PM’s spokesman did not proceed to explain exactly how. 

How is Muscat taking this issue ‘very seriously’, anyway? By refusing to sack either Konrad Mizzi or Keith Schembri? By nominally divesting Mizzi of the energy portfolio, while simultaneously allowing him to front all Malta’s energy initiatives in person?  

And what is that, if not proof that Konrad Mizzi is now both energy minister, and is not energy minister, at the same time?

Hence the trouble I see brewing on the horizon. For too long now, Malta has applied a completely surreal logic to local and international politics: as though these were two entirely separate universes, governed by completely different sets of physical laws.

Like Schrodinger’s Cat, this illusion inevitably has to shatter when confronted with reality. And shatter it will – as predictably as the half-life of a radioactive element – the moment Malta actually tries to actually assume that rotating EU presidency next year.

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