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3.1: Schrödinger's Cat

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  • The field of chemistry deals with the structures, bonding, reactivity, and physical properties of atoms, molecules, radicals, and ions all of whose sizes range from ca. 1 Å for atoms and small molecules to a few hundred Å for polymers and biological molecules such as DNA and proteins. The description of the motions and properties of the particles comprising such small systems has been found to not be amenable to treatment using classical mechanics. Their structures, energies, and other properties have only been successfully described within the framework of quantum mechanics. This is why quantum mechanics has to be mastered as part of learning chemistry.

    The concepts of quantum mechanics were invented to explain experimental observations that otherwise were totally inexplicable. This period of invention extended from 1900 when Max Planck introduced the revolutionary concept of quantization to 1925 when Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg independently introduced two mathematically different but equivalent formulations of a general quantum mechanical theory. In the early 1930's Schrödinger published a way of thinking about the circumstance of radioactive decay that is still useful. We imagine an apparatus containing just one Nitrogen-13 atom and a detector that will respond when the atom decays. Connected to the detector is a relay connected to a hammer, and when the atom decays the relay releases the hammer which then falls on a glass vial containing poison gas. We take the entire apparatus and put it in a box. We also place a cat in the box, close the lid, and wait 10 minutes.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Schrödinger's cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e., a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other. (CC BY-SA 3.0; Dhatfield).

    We then ask: Is the cat alive or dead? The answer according to quantum mechanics is that it is 50% dead and 50% alive. Quantum mechanics often gives odd results from a classical perspective.

    In this chapter, we will use quantum mechanismcs to describe how electrons are arranged in atoms and how the spatial arrangements of electrons are related to their energies. We also explain how knowing the arrangement of electrons in an atom enables chemists to predict and explain the chemistry of an element. As you study the material presented in this chapter, you will discover how the shape of the periodic table reflects the electronic arrangements of elements. In this and subsequent chapters, we build on this information to explain why certain chemical changes occur and others do not. 

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