Editor’s note (10/9/2012): We are making the text of this article freely available for 30 days because the article was cited by the Nobel Committee as a further reading in the announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics. The full article with images, which originally appeared in the June 1997 issue, is available for purchase here.

“I am sorry that I ever had anything to do with quantum theory,” Erwin Schrödinger reportedly complained to a colleague. The Austrian physicist was not lamenting the fate of his now famous cat, which he figuratively placed in a box with a vial of poison in 1935. Rather he was commenting on the strange implications of quantum mechanics, the science behind electrons, atoms, photons and other things submicroscopic. With his feline, Schrödinger attempted to illustrate the problem: according to quantum mechanics, particles jump from point to point, occupy several places at once and seem to communicate faster than the speed of light. So why don’t cats—or baseballs or planets or people, for that matter—do the same things? After all, they are made of atoms. Instead they obey the predictable, classical laws quantified by Isaac Newton. When does the quantum world give way to the physics of everyday life? “That’s one of the $64,000 questions,” chuckles David Pritchard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pritchard and other experimentalists have begun to peek at the boundary between quantum and classical realms. By cooling particles with laser beams or by moving them through special cavities, physicists have in the past year created small-scale Schrödinger’s cats. These “cats” were individual electrons and atoms made to reside in two places simultaneously, and electromagnetic fields excited to vibrate in two different ways at once. Not only do they show how readily the weird gives way to the familiar, but in dramatic fashion they illustrate a barrier to quantum computing—a technology, still largely speculative, that some researchers hope could solve problems that are now impossibly difficult.

The mystery about the quantum-classical transition stems from a crucial quality of quantum particles—they can undulate and travel like waves (and vice versa: light can bounce around as a particle called a photon). As such, they can be described by a wave function, which Schrödinger devised in 1926. A sort of quantum Social Security number, the wave function incorporates everything there is to know about a particle, summing up its range of all possible positions and movements.

Taken at face value, a wave function indicates that a particle resides in all those possibilities at once. Invariably, however, an observation reveals only one of those states. How or even why a particular result emerges after a measurement is the point of Schrödinger’s thought experiment: in addition to the cat and the poison, a radioactive atom goes into the box. Within an hour, the atom has an even chance of decaying; the decay would trigger a hammer that smashes open the vial of antifeline serum.

The Measurement Problem

According to quantum mechanics, the unobserved radioactive atom remains in a funny state of being decayed and not decayed. This state, called a superposition, is something quantum objects enter quite readily. Electrons can occupy several energy levels, or orbitals, simultaneously; a single photon, after passing through a beam splitter, appears to traverse two paths at the same time. Particles in a well-defined superposition are said to be coherent.

But what happens when quantum objects are coupled to a macroscopic one, like a cat? Extending quantum logic, the cat should also remain in a coherent superposition of states and be dead and alive simultaneously. Obviously, this is patently absurd: our senses tell us that cats are either dead or alive, not both or neither. In prosaic terms, the cat is really a measuring device, like a Geiger counter or a voltmeter. The question is, then, Shouldn’t measuring devices enter the same indefinite state that the quantum particles they are designed to detect do?