Ask Dr. SETI ®
by H. Paul Shuch
Executive Director Emeritus, The SETI League, Inc.
The SETI League is saddened to report the recent death of longtime supporting member Phyllis Shuch, early on the morning immediately after she had celebrated her 93rd birthday. Although not a scientist (but rather a reading teacher), her most significant contribution to SETI science was the early and enduring encouragement she gave to her son in pursuit of SETI success.
For the past few weeks, your loyal Executive Director (emeritus) has been occupied with settling his late mother's estate. And here is where we encounter a clash between quantum mechanics and legal semantics.
In the United States, no legal matters associated with arrangements for, or disposal of property belonging to, the deceased can be addressed without having an official death certificate in hand. Two weeks after my mother's demise, while I remained in California attempting to settle her affairs, no such death certificate had yet materialized. I called the County Department of Health, and inquired as to the status of the required paperwork.
"I can't discuss this with you," replied the sympathetic but unhelpful public servant at the other end of the telephone line, "as that would constitute a HIPAA violation."
HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a US law passed in 1996 to ensure that the privacy of patients' medical history is respected. In order to coordinate my mother's care during the final years of her life, she had long since signed HIPAA release forms, assigning me Power of Attorney for all medical matters. I so informed the Health Department employee.
"Oh, HIPAA forms are only valid during the life of the patient," she replied.
"Wait - wait a minute," I stammered. "Are you telling me that my mother is dead? Why, that's a HIPAA violation!"
The humor was lost on the public servant (which probably goes without saying, given that she had doubtless undergone a humorectomy as a condition of employment). "You'll receive the death certificates in the post, in due time."
Remember the thought experiment articulated by Erwin Schrödinger, the father of quantum mechanics, in 1935? He described a sealed box, containing a cat. But, was the cat alive or dead? One couldn't know which until the box was opened. So, up until the reality was revealed, the cat was simultaneously alive and dead, with assignable probabilities p and q (which of course must sum to 1).
And that was the situation with Phyllis Shuch. She remained simultaneously alive and dead, until just yesterday, when I finally received, and opened, the envelope from the County Health Department.
Spoiler alert: Schrödinger's mom is dead. She will be greatly missed, and long remembered.
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this page last updated 1 November 2014
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