The problem with the ‘Schrödinger backup’  

Cloudica CEO Adam Kotecki puts on his scientist hat to look at one of the problems faced by data security professionals today: “is my data safe or not?” 

Today’s publication will be a bit unusual. There will be both a little (quantum!) physics and a little computer science. This article will teach you: 

  • who Erwin Schrödinger was; 
  • that he had a cat 
  • that he liked to experiment (luck theoretically) 
  • and, what is the connection with the backup 

Erwin Schrödinger 

The first decades of the 20th century were extraordinary years in physics. At the end of the previous century, it seemed that there was not much left to discover.  

Classical theories (by Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell) fully explained the world. 

To everyone’s surprise, by the 1930s, a completely new description of the micro-world would set the physics community on fire – quantum mechanics.  

Through the work of such giants as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Louis de Broglie, among many others, a revolution was taking place. 

Quantum theory is complicated. Period. 

A few selected “paradoxes”: 

  • You cannot know all the parameters of a given system (e.g., momentum and position) at the same time (Heisenberg’s principle). 
  • The observer has an effect on the observed object (Observer effect) 
  • (Theoretically) it is possible to transmit data faster than light (so-called Quantum states) 
  • A single particle can be in two places at the same time (Young’s Double-slit experiment) 

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” 

The above sentence was uttered by one of the most prominent physicists of the 20th century, Richard Feynman (one of the founders of quantum electrodynamics), and well, you have to agree with him. 

In the 1920s, two mathematical theories were created, both describing the behavior of matter – the corpuscular theory and wave theory. Both start from completely different – and contradictory – assumptions. Interestingly, both are true. 

The first claims that matter is composed of bodies (corpuscles) with mass and momentum (as described by Newton), while the second states that matter is made up of waves of energy and that it can be described by means of just waves. 

Erwin Schrödinger created the latter. 

Schrödinger’s cat 

Here’s an important note – as far as is known, Schrödinger did not have a cat! This animal only appeared in a thought experiment that presents one of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. 

The experiment 

Imagine a sealed, opaque box, and in it is a device consisting of one atom of a radioactive element, a Geiger counter, as well as a vial of poisonous gas. 

The device works in such a way that when the Geiger counter detects a particle of radiation (resulting from the decay of a radioactive atom) it activates the device, which breaks the vial and releases the poisonous gas and thus killing the cat. 

Now note – after the half-life of the element has elapsed, there is exactly a 50% chance that the cat will be killed. 

That is, at any given moment (equal to the half-life), the cat is either alive (50% chance) or dead (50% chance). There is no other possibility. 

And yet! 

It turns out that according to quantum mechanics until you open the box and check – the cat is both alive and dead. 

Therefore… 

According to the rules of the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, until a measurement is made, i.e. it is determined what is happening to the cat, its state is fundamentally indeterminate – the cat is both alive and dead. Physicists speak of the superposed state of a living and dead cat. Only measurement will settle its fate. 

And how does this relate to your Backup? 

Well. You don’t want your backup to be in an indeterminate state. You don’t want it to be determined only when you use the backup (take a “measurement”) whether your backup is “alive” (allowing you to restore data) or “dead” (i.e., incomplete, not working). 

The analogy, of course, is limited. In the macroscopic world (“human-sized” objects), quantum effects are imperceptible, and your backup actually has a finite state. Rather, it’s your awareness of its state that is “quantum”, i.e. you don’t know whether you can rely on it or not – everything is decided in the moment of trial. 

The problem is that when we check the backup we most often do it during a failure, a situation that is highly stressful and has a short deadline.  

It is much better to ensure that in case of a crisis you not only have a correct backup but also procedures for creation, testing and restoration. 

Only such a comprehensive approach to backups can get you out of the “quantum trap”, which can be terribly costly. 

Summary 

Don’t do “Schrödinger backups”, don’t wait to see what condition your backup is in until it fails; 

Plan your backup (what, where, how often, how long…); 

Create and maintain up-to-date backup creation, testing, and restoration procedures. 

Schrödinger’s Backup is an interesting thought construct, but a poor practical solution! 

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