Schrödinger's Submarine

On my way home, I was listening to episode #399 of This American Life, titled “contents unknown”. The prologue featured a bizarre story about British submarines equipped with nuclear ICBMs.

On board of these vessels, so the story goes, is a safe that contains another safe that in turn contains in a sealed envelope a hand-written letter from the British Prime Minister to the commander of the sub. No one except the author would ever know the content of the letter. Plus, the content of letters written by former Prime Ministers never leaked into the public. Come a new prime Minister the letter is destroyed unread.

As its main an only purpose, the letter is supposed to instruct the sub’s commander whether or not to retaliate if the British homeland had been entirely destroyed by a nuclear attack.

In one way, the letter could command an immediate response in which case perhaps millions of people living in the country of the supposed attacker would be dying. Or else, it could basically submit into the fact that this would not change the game and tell the commander not to press the button.

And the way the story was put in This American Life the purpose of the letter could just as well be to

”… not want your enemy to know that you’re not gonna launch these missiles but you don’t want to think for yourself that you are. It lets you believe both things, so its two truths that existed at the same time”.

Of course, this immediately sparked the association with Schrödinger’s cat1. And although the analogy is certainly broken in many ways (for a start, there is obviously no real quantum mechanics involved) I found it creepy to consider the effect.

  1. Wait a minute, do they really have apostrophes in Wikipedia URLs?