Making of Schrödinger’s Cat

Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment devised by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. Since I’m not a physicist myself, you should take the following description of the idea with a grain of salt.

In the hypothetical experiment a cat is put in a sealed box with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. The Geiger counter detects when the radioactive material decays and a mechanism is triggered to release the poison, killing the cat. From outside the box it is impossible to tell if the reaction has taken place. According to the prevailing Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics at the time, the cat would have to be both alive and dead until the box was opened.

As far as I understand, what Schrödinger was trying to point out is the gap between the microscopic quantum theory, which is all about blurred probabilities, and the macroscopic ”real” world, which either is or isn’t. Also, the observer who opens the box seems to have the power to resolve the indeterminacy of the quantum world, which is a bit strange, you would think that physics works the same, whether there’s someone watching or not.

Okay, I went in over my head already, therefore I will not attempt to explain it any further. So let’s get back to the comforting solid world where if you hit something with a hammer, you make a dent. You don’t both make a dent and not make a dent. In my lighthearted interpretation of Schrödinger’s cat, I left quantum physics to the specialists and concentrated on the box and the cat. If you want to forget about the gory dead-and-or-alive aspects of the thought experiment, just imagine that there may be a cat in the cardboard box, or there may not.

Speaking of hammers and dents, the technique I used for this piece is called uchidashi (打ち出し). It’s a traditional Japanese metalworking technique that resembles the sinking and raising processes more familiar to us in the West. Instead of supporting the metal on various steel stakes and hitting it with hammers, as in western raising techniques, in uchidashi the metal is worked on a bowl filled with a mixture of mostly clay and pine pitch called matsuyani (松脂 pine rosin), with hammers and punches. Matsuyani is first heated to make it soft, during which the metal can be moved quite quickly, and as it cools, it stiffens and more accurate work is possible. I’ll write another post on matsuyani and the pitch bowl later.

I started off with a copper plate, approximately 0.8 mm thick. It was an etched printmaking plate in its previous life. I first sunk a shallow dish in the plate on a treestump, a bit like the sauna scoop you probably had to make in craft class in primary school – if you grew up in Finland, that is. Then I annealed the piece, attached it in the pitch bowl and started the punching process.

Here is the piece after the first round of hammering with a large and quite rough punch. The roughness of the punch allows one to ”grip” and move the metal down and in thus raising the shape. You’re kind of gathering the material from the sides and pushing it in. Or as Ford Hallam put it in his introductory video on uchidashi: ”Imagine doing a sandcastle on the beach.”

You can see the scribe marks, that I made to guide the final dimensions. There’s also a deeper groove in the lower right area in the plate, where I hit a bit too hard. That caused problems all the way to the end. It stubbornly wanted to fold in on itself at that spot, even though I tried to be very careful after the initial mistake.

The metal work hardens quite fast so the piece has to be annealed after every round of punching.

Here it is after round two.

I didn’t take pictures after every step, but the shape is slowly coming along. You can still see the problematic dent that I mentioned in the right corner.

Starting to resemble a box.

Defining the corners.

Here I’ve added some details with smaller punches and laid out some cuts to saw out.

Cuts made. I left a little bit extra in the corners. There are faint pencil marks slightly up from the base to mark the final height of the box.

I sawed grooves towards the pencil marks and defined the box side flaps with parallel jaw pliers.

I cut the excess flaps to the same proportions sculpted in top of the box. Some filing work still to be done, but before that I tightened the flap corners by punching in from the back.

I sunk the workpiece in the pitch upside down.

And hit the flap corners down. In proper uchidashi technique, this is frowned upon, you should be able to make the shape by hitting the plate only from the outside. Mercy, mercy me.

It looks like the sides are curved, but that is actually due to the material being thicker in the corners, caused by the technique. On the outside, the faces are pretty much flat and the corner is close to 90°, so the excess material is collected in the inside corner, if that makes sense.

After some filing and patination, here’s the finished Schrödinger’s cat sculpture. Thanks for reading, questions and comments are welcome.

February 22, 2017 | Categories:  Art, Making of, Metalworking | Keywords:  , , , ,