I was attempting to collapse a wave function Thursday — the A/C for the office has been taking much of the past week off, with promises of its imminent repair since Monday. The one working chiller has the capacity to cool the building only a few degrees below ambient, which was nowhere near adequate with the thermometer reading in the mid-90s (ºF). So rather than continue to self-baste at my desk, I wore shorts, hoping that this action would induce the chiller to be fixed, via a combination of superposition, Murphy’s law and passive resistance: a working chiller makes shorts both superfluous and marginally inappropriate, and all will subjected to my pasty-white legs until the system is fixed (and they are quite distracting, though I am informed that “running away screaming” does not count as swooning). Alas, the wave function did not collapse to the desired state, though it was a much more pleasant day yesterday, so my office was more-or-less tolerable.
But the thought of collapsing wave functions reminded me of a phenomenon I observed many times during the years I spent as an undergrad and grad student: the student who doesn’t show up to class when the exams are handed out. The professor will usually tell the class when the exams will be returned, and it’s often delayed one or two class sessions. In a small school, that’s because the professor is grading them him- or herself, and it takes time, and in a large university it’s often because they will be graded by the TAs, and most of them won’t do it until the night before (or wee hours of the morning of) the deadline. But there’s always that handful of students who don’t go to pick up the bad news, and it’s almost always bad news — from what I observed, the correlation is pretty strong between poor performance and not showing up to face the reality. For a long while I did not understand this, as it required going to the professor directly and asking for the exam, rather than being a momentary “Bueller” on the lips, though the propensity for the student to sit in the back of the class would add some time and attention to this evolution. Still, I don’t see that comparing to the one-on-one in the professor’s office.
But then I learned of coherent superpositions in quantum mechanics and it all began to make sense. One has not failed (or done poorly) on an exam until one has been handed the papers with all the red marks. Aha! By failing to retrieve the exam, all grades are still possible, and a poor one has not yet been earned. (Though that’s not quite right, either. Good grades are earned, poor grades are given. i.e. “I earned a ‘A,’” as opposed to ” the teacher gave me a ‘D’”).
(Update: Paraphrase: “Tom, it’s fixed. Put your damn pants back on”)