The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

We Are the Cat: How Schrödinger Can Teach Us to Hatelove the Bomb

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Shawn Littleton


With the movie Oppenheimer bringing the Bomb back into our casual conversations, it is a good time to rethink how you feel about the Bomb. Its abstract but existential implications are especially present today as a driver of both conversation and human behavior in an unprecedented way. Will the unleashing of nuclear weapons be the sadly predictable end of mankind that our worst nightmares portend, or will the Bomb fulfill our greatest hopes and be a deterrent backstop that prevents a third World War and enables a global reconciliation that leads to total disarmament? Should we hate or love the Bomb, or somewhere in between?


I suggest that we should neither pick a middle ground nor one extreme but should simultaneously pick both extremes. We should "hatelove" the Bomb, thereby embracing the paradoxical implications of the Bomb.

To cope with this paradox, we should consider an analogy to 20th-century physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s now-popularized thought experiment “Schrödinger’s Cat,” where the cat is famously both alive and dead at the same time inside a box until someone opens the box to check. In this instance, we are the cat, and someone is trying to open the box.

Why Should We Even Care about the Bomb?

We should all intensely care because we are closer than ever to having to test the hypothesis that it is a force of restraint that inhibits escalation, possibly providing the pressure global governments need to stop state-based violence forever. Not only has Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine focused and intensified the competition of nuclear powers, but also China’s growing belligerence and nuclearization of their armed forces is putting them on a path of aggression backed by 1,000 warheads by 2030. By then, America will have finished rubbing the sleep from its eyes after a post-Cold War nap and will be actively filling skies, seas, and silos with the products of a $1 trillion nuclear recapitalization.[1] In response, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to global midnight (a metaphor for how close dangerous technologies have put humanity to self-annihilation and global destruction), the closest it has ever been.[2] Since then, renewed conflicts across the Middle East have grown incredibly volatile, which have already seen the employment of nuclear rhetoric.[3] Therefore, the doomsday clock seems to be edging ever closer to midnight.

If you didn’t hate it already, the anxiety of an increasingly likely global apocalypse should make us hate the Bomb.

However, we should simultaneously love it for its role in interrupting escalation patterns that led to last century’s world wars. Although it seems that global trends are moving in the direction of chaos and regional conflicts causing a world war, nuclear weapons may offer an explanation for why that trend will not follow along its traditional, logical progression into global war. In June 1914, tensions in the Balkans erupted with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the recently annexed region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the resulting crisis, the Austro-Hungarian Empire looked to punish the Kingdom of Serbia for supporting the terrorists. While some efforts were made to resolve the crisis peacefully, many European powers made diplomatic and military preparations for potential conflict. Shortly after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, it launched a punitive expedition. The local conflict quickly escalated into the global conflict known as World War I.[4] Despite the failure of all parties’ initial strategies, the war intensified and expanded, catalyzing a global escalation.[5] In an eerie modern parallel, Hamas’ sovereignty-motivated terrorist tactics of October 2023 sparked a brutal, punitive invasion in a tense region already on hair-trigger alert. Even though the conflict will likely worsen and there are the ingredients for global escalation, the specter of nuclear weapons will constrain intensification and expansion below the levels of a global war. While sharing similar characteristics, World War II and Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine also highlight how nuclear weapons impact the potential for escalation.  In both conflicts, states led by revanchist megalomaniacs emboldened by successful annexations of neighboring territory under cultural pretexts launched all-out wars for demographic expansion and resource extraction. However, the specter of nuclear weapons is likely a strong causal force limiting the intensification and expansion of today’s war in Ukraine. Therefore, we should love the Bomb for disrupting the escalation cycles that traditionally lead to world wars.

The Paradox of the Bomb

Although “hateloving” the Bomb is admittedly paradoxical, this may be a good thing. From its outset, the Bomb’s existence sparked an intuitive recognition that this was not simply just a new weapon but something that ushered in a new era where the potential for both total destruction and ultimate salvation exist in a state of simultaneous possibility. The historian Richard Rhodes deftly put it:

By the necessity, commonly understood, to avoid triggering a nuclear holocaust, the deus ex machina would have accomplished then what men and nations had been unable to accomplish by negotiation or by conquest: the abolition of major war. Total security would be indistinguishable from total insecurity. A menacing standoff would be maintained suspiciously, precariously, at the brink of annihilation. Before the bomb, international relations had swung between war and peace. After the bomb, major war among nuclear powers would be self-defeating. No one could win. World war thus revealed itself to be historical, not universal, a manifestation of destructive technologies of limited scale. Its time would soon be past. The pendulum now would swing wider: between peace and national suicide; between peace and total death.[6]

Why, though, does a potential widening of this pendulous arc in the magnitude of violence not simply increase the cost of victory but render it impossible? Nuclear weapons introduced a discontinuity, an abrupt departure from a trend line, where the cost of victory ceased to scale predictably with the capacity for violence.

This paradoxical nature can be seen by taking some perhaps unconventional interpretations of the relationship between the capacity for violence and the probability of victory. A military’s success has historically been considered a linear spectrum. At one hypothetical end, they are so effective that they eliminate all opposition and are no longer needed. At the other hypothetical end, the military failed so abjectly that they no longer exist. Instead of considering these as opposite ends of a linear spectrum, consider them to be a circular spectrum. While the path taken to reach the same endpoint is still relevant, they both arrive at the same condition of non-existence, thus a cessation of violence.

Nuclear weapons can be considered on a similar spectrum with the unique and salient difference that they result in both paths being traveled simultaneously. Towards one end, the Bomb offers such immense punishing violence that a country within a nuclear umbrella enjoys total security without fear of an adversary’s attack. Along the other path, any country facing a nuclear opponent is so entirely insecure that they dare not climb the escalation ladder.

The distinctly important difference between the nuclear and conventional spectra is that a conventional military travels one route to a cessation of violence (a route of success or a route of failure), whereas in competition between nuclear powers, they simultaneously travel both paths to an absence of violence (a path of total security and a path of total insecurity). The paradox of total security being indistinguishable from total insecurity is difficult to grasp, but it is important to understand because our collective interpretation and embracing of this paradox directly affects whether or not the doomsday clock reaches global midnight.

Some Hatelove Help from Schrödinger

Schrödinger’s Cat provides a helpful start for grappling with the inherent paradox of nuclear weapons, which requires us to “hatelove” the Bomb. As physicists began to explore the quantum world during the 1920s, they were baffled by the inconsistencies between classical and quantum mechanics. These seemingly paradoxical realizations included the nature of light and electrons simultaneously behaving as both a wave and particle, a particle’s ability to simultaneously travel multiple paths to a destination, or the notion that electrons did not politely orbit a nucleus like moons around a planet but simultaneously existed throughout all possible points in stratified probability clouds around the nucleus. Each of these paradoxes illustrates what is called “quantum superposition.”

To further illustrate how quantum mechanics offers a helpful metaphor for understanding the nuances of nuclear versus conventional strategy, consider the similarities in how they depart from the conventional and the familiar. Both quantum effects and nuclear strategy follow a similar progression towards discontinuity, where a progression in scale ceases to follow the rules. A very large ball like a sun behaves like a smaller ball, like a planet, which behaves like a smaller ball like that for soccer, which mimics the behavior of a marble or a pea or a BB. But at a certain point, upon entering the quantum realm, the same physical behaviors no longer hold true for incredibly small ball-like objects, like atomic and subatomic particles, and we are forced to grasp new understandings and explanations. With martial violence, the physical and cognitive effects of conventional weapons scale relatively predictably with the magnitude of violence. However, very large values of violence, such as nukes, create a discontinuity akin to that of the quantum world. It causes a departure from convention and familiarity as it ceases to matter who can inflict the most damage beyond a certain threshold of violence. Absolute security and absolute insecurity become superimposed, and the “rules” of classical strategy fall short, the same way classical Newtonian physics falls short in quantum mechanics.

Recognizing the cognitive difficulty of grappling with the seeming absurdity of superposition, Schrödinger had initially posed his aforementioned thought experiment to Albert Einstein. Later published in 1935, the thought experiment considers whether a cat placed inside a box by a scientist either lives or dies as the result of a perfectly random subatomic event. The cat’s fate is considered to be dependent upon whether or not this perfectly random event occurred or not. This event would trigger a hammer to smash a vial of cyanic acid next to the cat (something guaranteed to expend all nine of a cat’s lives). Because this outcome involves quantum mechanics and not the typical natural world, the subatomic event exists in a simultaneous possibility of occurring and not occurring and is considered to be superimposed. Likewise, the cat, whose fate is linked to this particle, is considered to be both dead and alive, existing simultaneously in both states. The act that causes superposition to collapse is attempting to observe the outcome. Opening the box to check on the cat is the trigger that ultimately decides the fate of the cat… at least, that’s how the experiment is popularly used now.

Humankind finds itself in the role of the Cat. Given that we cannot guarantee a favorable end to humanity’s nuclear epoch, we are better off existing in a state of superposition. It is better to be both alive and dead inside the box than to risk being only dead if someone opens the box. We should hate the Bomb for the anxiety of world-ending potential it possesses but also love the Bomb for the violence-inhibiting characteristics it brings.

Some Unsolicited Advice for Cats

Hopefully, the application of Schrödinger’s Cat to the Bomb will lead others more quantum-competent than I to explore the subject further. Beyond that, I hope to leave the reader convinced, or at least willing to entertain the notion, that having the Bomb to "hatelove" at this point in human development is better than no bomb. I offer as a glimmer of hope the sincerely held belief that all of this is a logical progression on an arc of humanity that sees warfare as a transient condition. However, I believe it requires us to tolerate living with the Bomb for now.

While humanity had found itself in the position of the Cat before, for the first time, nukes arguably put all of us in the same box, where mankind’s fate is linked together. At the origin of the species, there were numerous isolated boxes where the individual security and survival of each “cat” depended upon an ability to collaborate with others; it was man with man against the environment. The question of whether or not humanity could behave with sufficient ingenuity and altruism to cooperate and survive together was the question answered as each box was opened. While some individuals failed, others succeeded. As bands of humans succeeded in overcoming their competition against the natural environment, the environment ceased to be the dominant barrier to human proliferation. Altruism run amok led to warfare. The greatest threat to survival became competition with other humans.

The next series of boxes were larger as they contained vast numbers of people in civilizations pitted against each other. The question answered as each box was opened was whether their ideologies had the appeal and functionality to triumph in the clash of civilizations. For every civilization discovered dead upon opening a box, at least one emerged alive from another box. Opening each box decided the fate of individuals or civilizations, but not mankind.

With the nuclear box encompassing all of humanity, it must be approached differently. Checking whether or not nuclear weapons bring absolute security or absolute insecurity is a quantum gamble. While the outside observer may not know if the Cat is alive or dead until opening the box, the Cat does.[7] In a way, we find ourselves in a situation similar to that at the beginning of the human struggle, competing against a nuclear instead of a natural environment. Do we have the ingenuity and altruism to cooperate and survive together?

Until we can create the trust required for cooperation, the Bomb is providing it for us. Trust is choosing to make something you value vulnerable to the actions of others.[8] At this point, nations capable of inciting and executing global war exist in a state of nearly absolute mutual vulnerability brought about by the Bomb. Other than the nuance of choice, this condition of shared vulnerability is indistinguishable from mutual trust. The challenge before us is to assume the mantle of choice and shift the balance from vulnerability forced by an inescapable potential for violence inherent to science to one rooted in human cooperation. The capacity for altruism that pulled mankind from the primordial ooze to the stars, while also bringing us to the brink of destruction, is what must eventually save us, and will secure us a better collective future. Eventual nuclear disarmament will be an effect of developing trust, not a cause or prerequisite. It is better to be both alive and dead inside the box than to risk being only dead if some nation tries to open the box. For now, we, the Cat, have to “hatelove” the Bomb until we can safely exit the box on our own terms.


Lt Col Shawn Littleton
Lt Col Littleton is a strategy nerd with brief academic exposure to nuclear issues as an Air War College student who finds nuclear strategy especially interesting.


The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.


[1.] Congressional Budget Office, Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2023 to 2032 (July 2023)

[2.] “FAQ,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (blog), accessed November 4, 2023,

[3.] Isabel Kershner, “Netanyahu Suspends Israeli Minister Who Said Dropping a Nuclear Bomb on Gaza Was an Option,” The New York Times, November 5, 2023, sec. World,

[4.] “Home Before The Leaves Fall...,” Google Arts & Culture, accessed November 10, 2023,

[5.] Anonymous, “Foundations of Strategy” (The USAF Air War College, Maxwell AFB, AL, September 2021).

[6.] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York London: Touchstone, 1988), 532.

[7.] Jim Al-Khalili, Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics, 1st American ed (New York: Broadway, 2012).

[8.] Ava Whitney-Coulter, “Brené Brown on What It Really Means to Trust,” Mindful, February 5, 2021,

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