Schrödinger’s damned cat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAQuantum mechanics changed the world… by extinguishing the dream of perfect determinism and mathematical predictability that structured the Newtonian universe.
     – Amir Alexander, science and mathematics historian at UCLA and author of the book Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World

Schrödinger’s damned cat

Not once in my life have I broken 100 straight skeet targets, and it’s all the fault of Schrödinger’s damned cat.

One hundred straight has been an elusive goal. Eighty-seven straight was my best ever, and then I missed the high house target at station five and went into a funk for a week. Most days I am lucky to break 22 or 23 targets in a round, so the goal of 100 straight is a pipe dream, a quest beyond my powers.

But a ray of hope broke through the clouds of reality several months ago when a friend listened to one of my skeet shooting tales of woe and told me, “It can’t be that hard; it’s simple physics.” He is a brilliant man with a scientist’s mind, an engineer’s imagination, and a mathematician’s logic, so if he says he can make me into a 100-straight shooter by solving a couple quadratic equations, well by golly I am going to pay attention.

Back in high school I took a physics course which mostly consisted of a rowdy class of boys soaking ourselves with a wave machine and electrocuting the bejeezus out of one another with a Van der Graaf generator. Progressing to any higher appreciation of physics was beyond me; I couldn’t do the math or grasp the concepts. In college I satisfied my science credits requirement by enrolling in 101-level courses in geology and biology. What importance was physics to a history and political science major? I had no time or interest.

But if intense study of the laws of physics could improve my skeet scores, now that was a horse of a different color.

I did not start shooting skeet until rather late in life, about age 30, when mastering the skills and techniques of a new game can be difficult. Training and conditioning the body’s muscle groups to properly perform new tasks requires thousands of repetitions, joints and tendons are not as flexible as those of more youthful bodies, and reflexes and eyesight are already past prime. As we age, all these conditions worsen, and our shooting skills deteriorate even more.

Consequently, my clay target shooting scores have not improved over the years despite extensive reading on the subject, much well-intended coaching from friends who are better shooters than I, and frequent participation in the clays games at shooting ranges across the United States and even in Texas.

So when someone offered me a magic elixir in the form of simple physics equations, you can be sure that I grabbed the bottle. Two books from the public library were all I needed to reacquaint myself with Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the greatest physicist of all time and the man who launched the scientific revolution. Although Sir Isaac was not a clay target shooter himself, since the games were not invented until more than 150 years after his death, he had a clear understanding of the nature of the flight of a projectile such as the skeet target: where it would go, how fast it would take off, its rate of deceleration, its trajectory, and how the wind would affect it.

He even invented the higher mathematics, calculus, that we use to calculate all this.

Two days of reading Newton’s laws of physics convinced me that I could determine, within a fraction of an inch, exactly where a skeet target would be on its flight path and its exact speed. Considering that a skeet gun’s shot pattern covers about a 36-inch circle at its point of intersection with the clay target, and the speed of those lead pellets is about 13.73 times faster than the clay target, it was a virtual certainty that I could break every single one, every single time.

My target shooting computations were based on Newton’s Three Laws of Motion:

  1. Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
  2. The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F can be stated in the equation F = ma. Acceleration and force are vectors; in this law the direction of the force vector is the same as the direction of the acceleration vector.
  3. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Without the nuisance of making you pore over several pages of my complicated equations for applying these laws to skeet shooting, accept my explanation that all skeet targets throwers launch each and every target with the same force (acceleration) and in exactly the same direction (vector), the effect of gravity is the same at all skeet fields, and the force of friction (air resistance) that slows the velocity of the target is virtually the same. So to determine the point where the charge of shot pellets will intercept the clay target, the only variables that need to be plugged into my predetermined equation are wind speed and direction.

I entered that template equation into a hand-held computer, bought a simple wind indicator, and was ready to run 100 straight. A thousand straight. All I had to do was aim the gun muzzle at the exact point of target intersection, call “pull,” and yank the trigger when the calculator went “beep.” It’s not rocket science. Well, actually it is rocket science, but really basic rocket science compared to landing an exploration vehicle on Mars.

Then, while I was ordering lumber to build shelves for all the skeet trophies I would win over the next several years, my scientist friend sent me an e-mail message with a link to a New York Times article about quantum mechanics, a theoretical branch of physics, written by Amir Alexander, a science and mathematics historian at UCLA. As an accomplished physics mechanic I was eager to read it and maybe offer to write a peer review or a follow-up article.

What this fellow Alexander had to say completely topped over the apple cart. To quote, selectively, from his article:

Quantum mechanics changed the world… by extinguishing the dream of perfect determinism and mathematical predictability that structured the Newtonian universe.

He explained that a gang of renegade physicists apparently broke loose in the 1920s and ’30s and wrote a bunch of new laws that totally messed up the “homogeneous, continuous, Newtonian world in which all objects moved seamlessly from the past to the future, governed by universal mathematical laws.”

…. everything changed: Objects now follow different rules depending on their size, and we can never be sure where they are or what they are doing. In fact, we can’t even say what they are, because that depends on how we observe them. Our reality became one of unpredictable gaps, inconsistencies, warps and bubbles…and we are still struggling to find our way in the quantum universe.

This Amir Alexander named names, identified the culprits: Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and perhaps the most notorious Werner Heisenberg who wrote the Uncertainty Principle that says the location and momentum of an object cannot both be known with certainty at the same time, and the more precisely the position of an object is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. Put that in your skeet cap!

So we can’t really tell, in a factual way, where the target is or how fast it’s going. As if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes this scientist from Austria named Erwin Schrödinger who hated cats and put one in a box with a piece of radioactive matter and a bottle of poison to prove that at any given moment the cat could be alive or dead or maybe both alive and dead depending on how we looked at the concept of time and our powers of observation. Although I’m not going along with his story that one tiny particle of radiation would open the poison bottle; I think he poisoned the cat himself.

The outcome of all this quantum physics tinkering is that we skeet shooters are in a helluva mess. Think about this: we cannot know where the target is, we cannot know how fast it is going, and we cannot even know the exact moment we should pull the trigger.

I wanted to call Plank and Einstein and Heisenberg and Bohr and Schrödinger to give them a piece of my mind, and also maybe file a complaint with the ASPCA about this Schrödinger’s Cat theorem, but I found out that all five of them are dead. And we’re better off for it, as far as I am concerned, although I’m not exactly a cat lover myself.

So there went my dream of being a clay target shooting champion. On the other hand, I feel a lot better about being able to break 22 or 23 in a round of skeet when you consider that all these highfalutin quantum physicists have proven that it’s just about impossible to hit one.


More stories about upland bird hunting and the shooting sports are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
This entry was posted in Physics, Quantum Mechanics, Shooting Sports, Skeet and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Schrödinger’s damned cat

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Keep shooting! Thom

  2. mrain1 says:

    There are now several generations of physicist rolling in their graves, Heisenberg being the foremost. Einstein on the other hand is laughing his ass off because he always hated quantum mechanics, and knew that someone would come along and convolute the basics of indeterminancy to include not just electrons for which it was intended, but for clay pigeons as well.

    • With some additional research and theorizing, I think this quantum mechanics business can be proved a causative agent in global warming, too. And probably social evolution.

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