Holiday Entanglement

The onset of the holidays creates a teeming exodus of sappy cheer and goodwill in other people.  I like being cranky; I won’t deny that.  It makes me feel good to keep a room equalized, especially if it means normalizing a family get-together from ‘Neurotic Yuletide Cheese-fest’ to ‘Typical Low-Anxiety Scream-a-palooza’.   There’s always a chance that each holiday event could leave me catatonic, clutching my knees and humming Good King Wenceslas in a dark, pine-scented corner.

Even more alarming than the sudden good-natured tolerance of my nuclear family is their euphoric intoxication at giving The Perfect Gift.  December finds me grinding my teeth and powerhousing oatmeal cookies to queal the anxiety.  I don’t mind commercialism so much, but I always think of it as something that happens to other people.  It’s not until I’m expected to purchase thoughtful knick-knacks that I start considering the tensile strength of tinsel.  As a result, my thoughts tend toward uncertainty on a quantum mechanical level.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of Schrodinger’s Cat, let me expound with a bit of preliminary text from our latest chapter-in-the-wings:

“Let’s construct a box with a vial of poison in it. If a particular radioactive atom, also located inside the box, decays in a certain amount of time, the poison will be released into the box. If the atom doesn’t decay, then no poison would be released. We then place a cat inside the box and close the lid.

After the requisite amount of time passed, is the cat dead or alive?

At the instant that we open the box and observe the contents (that is, whether it is alive or dead), the wavefunction ‘collapses’ and we know the exact state of the cat.”

Being of the mind that I don’t have to buy The Perfect Gift, but rather the most appropriate gift at the local convenience store, I wonder if perhaps it would be wiser of me to simply wrap an empty box and inform the recipient that they must never, ever open it.

“What you hold before you, mom, is the greatest present that anyone has ever given you.  Do you really want to ruin it?  Can’t you just be happy that, as far as you know, you hold in your hands the most thoughtful (and expensive) gift that you will ever receive?  Or do you have to open it, collapse the wave equation, and potentially ruin Christmas?”

It’s my experience that these substantiations, as valid as they may be to a trained physicist (or, in rare occasions, an engineer or two), do not carry clout with nurses, businessmen, or politicians-in-training.  This makes the holidays especially taxing around my house.

Evidently, 99 times out of a 100, this will not stop someone from opening their Perfect Gift/Empty Box.  It couldn’t hurt to employ yet another quantum mechanical argument:

“Merry Chri–huh?  Where is it?  It must have tunneled out of the box!  Somehow, the holiday spirit must have imbued The Perfect Gift with enough energy to sporadically appear in a completely new location.  Quantum Tunneling is tricky business, mom.  I won’t tell you what your gift was, as I don’t wish to compound this tragedy by spoiling the surprise… but you would have loved it.”

I don’t think this plan will work either.

If you throw Occam’s razor at this, you could just plant the seed that your brother or estranged cousin stole whatever was in the box.  This would serve the purpose of clearing your good name as a gift giver, as well as reducing the number of relatives to share oatmeal cookies with next year.

Maybe I’m looking at this all the wrong way.  Maybe the family is right; I’m a humbug, and I’m using physics as an escape vehicle. 

I’ll try to keep an open mind: I’ll do my best to make it a Classic holiday—no gifts that depend on how you observe them, no presents that somehow tunneled back into the store.  I’ll just take a deep breath, push aside the uncertainty and randomness of the high-energy, subatomic world, and try to enjoy the company of my folks.

Even if I have to give Mountain Dew, deli cheese, and lottery tickets to everyone on my list.

—jb

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