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Fear of Flying: Statistics, Probability and a Shameless Distortion of Schrödinger’s Cat

If you have a mental image of a contorted feline, all twisted limbs, shoved in a box and mighty pissed off about its current status – stop right there. That’s not what’s this is about. I will however will be playing fast and loose with various theories (probability, quantum but probably not statistics).

I’ve struggled with a fear of flying since 2004. Shortly after Amberleigh House won the Grand National for Ginger McCain, I boarded a flight from Kingston, Jamaica back to London. It may have been Heathrow, it could have been Gatwick – I can’t remember which. It may be that you think that detail doesn’t matter, but actually it does, because did you know Gatwick ONLY HAS ONE RUNWAY? The difficulty with this arrangement at Gatwick is that if something goes wrong on the sole landing strip – those aircraft waiting to land there are fucked. And, as the World’s Busiest single runway that’s a lot of planes stacking up in the air…

Anyway, I digress. Back in Jamaica the plane took off, night fell, turbulence started. The seat belt sign was on for most of that flight, so much so that going to use the toilet felt like taking one’s life in one’s hands – which in a sense it was. Unsecured people’s heads smashing through the ceiling of the cabin didn’t happen on that flight, but it can and does happen – notably recently on a plane from Singapore to London. Sadly, turbulence does cause injuries when you aren’t strapped to the seat and god alone knows how the pilot and first officer actually fly the plane at the same time…

Anyway, flying back from the Caribbean I was a six months pregnant woman so utilising some sort of secret industrial bladder strength wasn’t an option and I had to unbelt myself to literally brave the trip to the loo. I am not sure I have ever felt so vulnerable. Irresponsible too. I was travelling with my partner and two year old daughter. As I perched on the terrible toilet seat to pee, suspended 30,000 plus feet in the air over the Atlantic I was metaphorically shitting myself.

I learned a lot about humans that night (mostly that we are dully sheeplike in extremis) and since then I’ve found out a lot more about aviation generally in a bid to overcome my fear. One rule of those doing the actual flying is:

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate

This maxim explains the deafening silence from the flight deck and the interminable illumination of the seat belt sign nearly all the way from Jamaica. The Captain didn’t communicate anything to us the passengers, because he was too busy flying the damn plane through god knows what. I also now know that thunderstorms, despite the widely-touted claims about the robust nature of modern aircraft, are dangerous to planes and all who fly in them and, where possible, flight crew aim to give them a ten mile wide berth.

That night the plane plummeted up and down more than once. It was awful. And it seemed endless. I have since wondered if we were in a series of storms or if it was the plain old turbulence. What’s no comfort in these situations are statistics. Statistics allow us to rationalise the danger we feel that we might be in. One such statistic might be: of every 100 million people that fly every year, only 2 will die in an airplane accident. That statistic does nothing to reassure my overactive amygdala because it doesn’t make sense. After all, common sense not statistics dictate that if a jumbo jet goes down, more than 2 people out of around only 300 on board are going to die. I’m no math genius but numerically 300 is nowhere near 100 million. It’s simple common sense that tells us that in each individual disaster just about everyone is going to die. And over the Atlantic, in the middle of the night, you are all going to die. That’s a fact. Statistics just can’t help with any of that.

So when I board a plane then, I draw zero comfort from statistics. Instead I am focused on probability which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Statistics based on what has happened across the history of aviation tell me the plane will safely convey me from A to B and that my current chances of death on any flight are 1 in 50 million – good odds. Probability tells me that the proposition is more nuanced than that. Probability factors in all kinds of other things like: drunk, suicidal, over-tired, hungover, unhealthy or even one-armed pilots; maintenance crews missing important mechanical things that I don’t know the word for, the weather, ice, sand storms, volcanic eruptions, birdstrike, clear air turbulence that the airplane radar can’t detect, terrorists, plane flaws like those fires on the Dreamliners or metal fatigue in DC10s (I am a child of the 1960s – just) and hijackers. Probability will need to take into consideration the training the flight crew have and have not had, the amount of fuel that the plane has taken on, the nature of the route, and all the other planes that might be out there. It will also have to figure out how likely it is that a whole national Air Traffic Control system can go down, like the UK’s did towards the end of last year. I can’t do the math to say what probability theory tells me about my chances on any given flight are – the variables are difficult to quantify and, well just too variable.

Which brings me to the cat thing. As far as I am concerned, and now I have typed this up I have a horrible feeling that I have written this post before, when I board a plane it’s an either or situation. Like Schrödinger’s cat in the box, in the metal belly of the plane, I enter state of two possibilities – alive or dead – and no-one, including me, will know which possibility will have the upper hand until someone opens the box.

This post has obviously been occasioned by recent events over the Java Sea. It is also mindful that only yesterday a 7 year old girl knocked at the door of a house in Kentucky. She was bleeding and barefoot and the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed all the other four people on board, including her parents. Statistics and probability are no help to her – they only truly inform insurance companies and gamblers and aren’t so much applicable to the indivdual human condition.

Number crunching has it’s place, but we can learn a lot more from cats.

Gedankenexperiment 2: Schrödinger’s Cat

The blog seems to be drawn only to thought experiments that involve cats. I suspect there is not an infinite supply of these (thought experiments involving cats, not cats, of which there may well be).

When I run out, I will have to think up my own.

Schrödinger’s cat explores the interpretation of quantum mechanics through the possibilities for the fate of the cat in the box, before the box is opened and observed.

It’s a good mental warm-up on a Sunday for the woman thinking of cooking an unobserved roast dinner.

Is E=mc2 broken?

Well, we can’t actually say. As it stands, the experts don’t know if their own experiments with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland have violated the laws of physics, or if their methodology is flawed. So, after three years of wayward results (where neutrinos appear to arrive in Italy before they left Switzerland?) they have turned the results over to their peers for verification or otherwise. If they are right, then Einstein is wrong, apparently.

I have read a bit about Einstein and I think a cool guy like him would take all this in his stride – ‘never lose a holy curiosity’ is one of his quotes. Not something you imagine a man who had to be right all the time saying.

The fact is that the nefarious neutrino beam in question has been consistently recorded travelling the 730 km from (a) Switzerland to (b) Italy a whole 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light, thus breaking the laws of universe and violating the Standard Model of Physics.

Professor Brian Cox was on the radio last week explaining it. Well he didn’t really explain it because it is, currently, inexplicable given all that is held to be true about physics, but he said if it is true it could be that the neutrinos are taking a shortcut through an alternative dimension.

If I were a neutrino I probably wouldn’t bother with the alternative dimension shortcut, consequently breaking the universal laws of the universe to just save myself 60 nanoseconds (in case you were wondering 1 nanosecond is one billionth of a second). After all it’s hardly enough time to scribble a postcard from the Fourth Dimension with Wish You Were Here!

The Hadron Collider fires these neutrinos, or collides them, in a beam and whilst everyone of a scientific bent sounds mind-boggled, I have read that this was one of its very functions, by design. Namely, to explore the intersection between general relativity and quantum mechanics (I got that from Wikipedia).

I find quantum mechanics easier to follow than general, or indeed special, relativity, because you don’t need to be Einstein to get it, and because there is a cat in it. And some string.

Superstring and Schrodinger’s cat. Yay.

My own wondering goes like this. The Large Hadron Collider is made by man, but it is not strictly-speaking a naturally occuring phenomenon, so if it has broken the laws of physics which Einstein based on the laws of the natural universe (as he understood them) is that such a surprise? Perhaps *relativity works most of the time, for most things. That shouldn’t preclude a machine that does something different should it? After all Star Trek had a teleporter… On the other hand the CERN scientists nanosecond clock might just be wrong.

Sorry. Here’s some proper scientific shizzle.

The Culprit: The Large Hadron Collider

*this may be a poor comparison, but Newton’s apple would never have fallen on his head if Lincolnshire was on the moon. Which some may say it may as well be…

**Edited to add: I had a bit of a read about the level of energy being created in the LHC and it seems there might be a bit of a clue in there. Apparently, the energy being created to smash the particles about is equivalent to that of high energy cosmic rays that are naturally created and hitting the earth’s atmosphere all the time. But, some of these high energy cosmic rays are so high energy that they also contradict the predictions of special relativity.

It’s my understanding that although these cosmic rays were discovered in 1912 by someone in a hot air balloon called Victor Hess, the really high energy ones have only been observed since the 1960s, after Einstein’s death. I might be wrong; I may be a bit lost now too. Nevertheless, these high energy cosmic rays are also subject to the same questioning as the research at CERN: are the measurements wrong? Another theory is that they originate from another galaxy. I like that one; if they did we might have to come up with some new laws called the inter-galactic laws of physics.

I’ll get on to that in the morning. Beam me up Scottie.