SPOTLIGHT: These Symptoms by Phillip E. Temples

Levinson’s Cat

 “The probable is what usually happens.” –Aristotle

“What is this contraption you’ve been laboring on, Myles?”

Tilton Armstrong, the Karl Eisel Distinguished Chair of Physics, posed the question to the department’s most junior faculty member, Myles Levinson, shortly after three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.

Levinson was focused intently on securing a mechanical arm to one side of a large plastic container. He was so focused, in fact, that he failed to hear Dr. Armstrong’s arrival. Levinson quickly hid his embarrassment and came up with a cockamamie cover story:

“Oh! Hi, professor. It’s a … it’s a physics party trick for this weekend. Several of my colleagues and I are entertaining the young ladies, and I was drafted to come up with a demonstration, and … well, it has to do with gravity and …”

“I see. Very interesting.” Armstrong looked anything but interested, but he seemed to believe Levinson’s story. At least, Levinson hoped so, because he had no idea what dribble he would have peddled next to the elderly gentleman.

“You know, Myles, instead of party tricks, you might want to focus more time and attention on producing original scholarly work. You realize, don’t you, that you have only so many years to prove yourself to the tenure committee. I would hate to see someone of your talent fall by the wayside.” He continued, “Already, Jacobs and Chen have published three and four papers, respectively. You have … how many, now?”

“Uh, one, sir.” Embarrassed, he added, “As a third author.”

“Third author. Right. Good day, Dr. Levinson.” Armstrong shot him a distasteful look before turning and walking out of the room.

Levinson sighed. The truth be told, Levinson had been in a rut for almost six months. His original area of interest that earned him his doctorate, “Multiple Symmetric Hyperbolic Systems and Non-linear Solutions to Einstein Equations,” seemed at first an ideal area in which to continue his scholarly work. But recently, some of his original collaborators had moved on to other areas, leaving him feeling isolated and insignificant. Armstrong was right: if he didn’t get his act together and develop some promising new work or at least, switch to a new field he would be thrown to the wolves. The senior faculty comprising the department’s Promotion and Tenure Committee were known to be heartless bastards, having devoured several candidates in recent years.

It’s true, he thought. They eat their young.

The object of Levinson’s fascination had to do with a famous illustration of the principle in quantum theory of superposition. Erwin Schrödinger proposed it back in 1935. The superposition theory went something like this:

A cat is enclosed in a box with a radioactive source and a poison that will be released when the source unpredictably emits radiation. Now, the cat—according to quantum mechanics—is considered to be simultaneously both dead and alive until the box is opened and the cat is observed.

No one actually believed that Schrödinger went to the trouble of constructing such a box with a test animal, a radioactive source, and poison. It was merely a thought exercise he concocted to explain superposition. But Levinson was fascinated with the idea.

Why not? It would be grand!

A part of Levinson knew he was simply procrastinating, pushing out of his mind the unpleasant reality of his current predicament. It was merely a coping mechanism.

But it would be fun!

Levinson would become a contestant in the famous Ig Nobel Prizes for Improbable Research, held annually at Harvard University. He had nearly all of the components he needed. A month earlier, Levinson had obtained a radioactive isotope. Last week, an undergraduate student in the electrical engineering department constructed for him a logic circuit that would produce a signal upon detection of a certain number of beta particles. The signal, in turn, would trigger a firing pin, causing hydrochloric acid to be mixed with a tiny amount of potassium cyanide, the latter, courtesy of the chemistry department.

All he needed was a cat.


Levinson didn’t have the time or inclination to go to an animal shelter and adopt a cat.

It was no secret that a feral cat had taken up residence by the dumpster behind the building. The evening janitor, Jesus Castillo, fed the cat regularly and thus had developed a rapport with the animal. It approached him without reservation.

“But Professor, you sure this is legal? I no want to get fired.”

Levinson explained to Jesus he needed the cat for a simple experiment and that the university’s protocols made it very difficult for Levinson to acquire a feline upon such short notice through their animal research labs.

Levinson admitted they would be “bending the rules” a bit.

Jesus’ glance shifted between Levinson’s face and what he had in his hand: a considerable amount of money.

“The cat, he … he no get hurt?”

“He’ll be fine, Jesus. I swear.”

“Okay. I get you the cat.”

Jesus took the wad of twenty-dollar bills from Levinson and pocketed it. “Muchas gracias, Professor. Tonight, around six o’clock.”


Jesus was true to his word. He delivered the stray feline to Levinson’s lab shortly after six p.m. After being reassured again by Levinson that no harm would befall the cat, Jesus departed to perform his evening cleaning duties.

Levinson looked at the box, and then he looked at the cat.

“Well, my furry friend, you and I are about to become famous.”

With gloved hands, Levinson reached into the small cage, pulled out the animal, and placed it in his experimental box. He secured the lid, and then he started a timer. The cat protested vigorously at first but stopped struggling once the lid was shut.

Levinson was tempted to go across the hallway and recruit one of the post-docs, Chen Wu, to come and bear witness to the groundbreaking experiment.

Surely, he’s not an animal lover, thought Levinson. Don’t they eat dogs and cats in his native China?

No. It was best that Levinson be the sole witness. He didn’t want this to get back to Armstrong. Besides, in keeping with the spirit of the experiment, only one observer should be involved. Otherwise, who knew what theoretical holes might be poked in the experimental design if two observers were present?


Levinson chuckled to himself as he conjured up this odd thought.

The cat will be both alive and dead up until the moment I open the lid. But of course, when I open it, I’ll observe a dead cat. All of its nine lives will have been extinguished. Al fine. Das ende. The end.

For a while, nothing happened. The cat was moving around periodically, no doubt exploring its confined environment. And Levinson could hear the Geiger counter emit a muffled, but audible clicking sound as it periodically registered beta decay from the radiation source. Then, at T plus 3 minutes 23 seconds, Levinson heard a louder click followed by a cracking noise.

Yes! The hydrochloric acid must be mixing with the potassium cyanide.

Levinson heard a low, muffled cry from inside the box, followed by considerable banging and commotion. It was, no doubt, the animal thrashing about in its death throes. After approximately 30 seconds had elapsed, the movement stopped.


One must not draw any rash scientific conclusions. At this moment, Levinson thought, the cat might exist in both an alive and dead state, per Schrödinger’s hypothesis. It was time for an observer to enter the equation.

Very carefully, Levinson cracked open the lid of the container. The first thing he noticed was a strong scent of almonds—a taletell sign of cyanide. The post-doc at the chemistry department assured him that, at that volume, the gas would not be lethal and that it would dissipate rapidly in a non-enclosed space. Still, Levinson wasn’t about to take any deep breaths just yet.

As he further opened the lid, Levinson was in for a shock.

What the f––!

The cat, very much alive, jumped at the slight opening. He clawed his way out of the container and jumped down onto the lab bench. For a brief moment, Levinson was convinced that he spied a dead cat lying inside the box! But then it was gone.

Have I become so entangled in this little charade that I’m losing my mind?

Levinson stood there, catching his breath. He glanced at the cat. The cat calmly stared back at him. Then, the cat shifted its gaze and looked down onto the floor.

What’s he looking at?

 Levinson followed the cat’s gaze downward. At first, he couldn’t fathom what he was seeing. Next to him, Levinson saw a dead body lying face down on the floor!

The thing that initially caught Levinson’s attention was the color of the back of the neck and hands. They were a dark cherry-red. He was told that cyanide poisoning would do that. It halted cellular respiration by inhibiting an enzyme in the mitochondria called cytochrome c oxidase.

As he was thinking these things, it slowly dawned on Levinson that the body looked awfully familiar. Levinson reached down and turned the corpse over.

It was him! It was Levinson’s doppelganger.


The cat grinned.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s