Pandora and Schrödinger Meet for Tea

Pandora’s box was full to the bursting when she came upon Schrödinger in 1945. She’d sent him a letter, telling him of her special box, which was actually a jar, and he invited her to have tea with him at Oxford. He’d signed his letter with his usual messy signature but for the first time felt self conscious about it. He knew she would be beautiful.

Think of this, he told her when they’d identified one another on the appointed time at the appointed place. How do you know everything in your box exists? he asked her. He sipped his earl grey and avoided her eyes.

She shook her head and thought he looked mighty handsome for a man of his age. She especially liked his bow tie. It made him look like a little package all wrapped up for her. I know it’s real because of its weight, she said. Here.

He tried to take the jar from her but the moment she released it into his hands, his whole body plunged forward and in that split second he thought he saw the jar breaking, scattering shards everywhere, and a void in the shape of a human face bursting out of it. But no, he must have imagined it. As he straightened up, Pandora already had the jar clutched tight in her hands.

Do you see? She said, sighing. Nobody else can hold it. Only I. And it has gotten so heavy in the last few years. So heavy.

It’s all a matter of perception, Schrödinger said, peevishly. He sipped his tea and fiddled with his shirt cuffs. They didn’t seem to want to remain under his jacket but they also wouldn’t, simply wouldn’t, establish themselves evenly outside of it. He was certain he looked a mess.

Now look, he began again. Think of it this way. If you put a cat in a box, and you close the lid, and leave some food and water inside, but also some poison, and the poison will be released into the air as soon as you open the lid, and then you come back after a week, will you know if the cat is alive?

It depends how much food you leave it, she said. It certainly wouldn’t try to get at the poison. Cats have a good sense of smell.

No, no, you don’t understand. The cat is both alive and dead until you open the lid. It is in both states simultaneously until you try to observe it, and only then will it be either alive or dead.

If you say so.

But then don’t you see? Your jar, the evils of the world, all that. It is heavy because you are certain that all of that is contained there. All of it. But you cannot observe it. Correct?

Yes, correct.

Well, then, how do you know, truly know, that the jar contains anything at all?

I see what you’re getting at, Pandora said. She was disappointed. She knew the evil was contained in her jar, and she knew she was the only one strong enough to continue holding it. She thought of poor Atlas and which one of them was worse off.

I must go, she said, getting up. Thank you for the tea.

Schrödinger waved goodbye and watched her walk out of the tea shop. She seemed to shrink and grow older as she walked away, and by the time she was at the door, she was bent over almost double, her jar clutched in one hand while the other held onto a cane for dear life. Right there, right in front of him, he realized, had been sitting a woman both young and old at the very same time. It was all a matter of perception.


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