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Schrödinger’s cat

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Text adapted from “Schrödinger’s cat.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Feb. 2017.


Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment, sometimes described as a paradox, devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935. It illustrates what he saw as the problem of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects.

Cat static balloons

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity (i.e., a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead, not both alive and dead.


This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

The Copenhagen interpretation implies that the cat remains both alive and dead – until the state is observed.

Schrödinger did not wish to promote the idea of dead-and-alive cats as a serious possibility.

On the contrary, he intended the example to illustrate the absurdity of the existing view of quantum mechanics


Since Schrödinger’s time, other interpretations of quantum mechanics have been proposed that give different answers to the questions posed by Schrödinger’s cat of how long superpositions last and when (or whether) they collapse.

Many-worlds interpretation and consistent histories

In 1957, Hugh Everett formulated the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which does not single out observation as a special process.

In the many-worlds interpretation, both alive and dead states of the cat persist after the box is opened, but are decoherent from each other.


In other words, when the box is opened, the observer and the possibly-dead cat split into an observer looking at a box with a dead cat, and an observer looking at a box with a live cat. But since the dead and alive states are decoherent, there is no effective communication or interaction between them. We have created parallel universes!

Decoherence interpretation

When opening the box, the observer becomes entangled with the cat, so “observer states” corresponding to the cat’s being alive and dead are formed; each observer state is entangled or linked with the cat so that the “observation of the cat’s state” and the “cat’s state” correspond with each other. Quantum decoherence ensures that the different outcomes have no interaction with each other. The same mechanism of quantum decoherence is also important for the interpretation in terms of consistent histories. Only the “dead cat” or the “alive cat” can be a part of a consistent history in this interpretation.


External resources


Learning Standards

SAT Subject Test: Physics

Quantum phenomena, such as photons and photoelectric effect
Atomic, such as the Rutherford and Bohr models, atomic energy levels, and atomic spectra
Nuclear and particle physics, such as radioactivity, nuclear reactions, and fundamental particles
Relativity, such as time dilation, length contraction, and mass-energy equivalence

AP Physics Curriculum Framework
Essential Knowledge 1.D.1: Objects classically thought of as particles can exhibit properties of waves.
a. This wavelike behavior of particles has been observed, e.g., in a double-slit experiment using elementary particles.
b. The classical models of objects do not describe their wave nature. These models break down when observing objects in small dimensions.

Learning Objective 1.D.1.1:
The student is able to explain why classical mechanics cannot describe all properties of objects by articulating the reasons that classical mechanics must be refined and an alternative explanation developed when classical particles display wave properties.

Essential Knowledge 1.D.2: Certain phenomena classically thought of as waves can exhibit properties of particles.
a. The classical models of waves do not describe the nature of a photon.
b. Momentum and energy of a photon can be related to its frequency and wavelength.

Content Connection: This essential knowledge does not produce a specific learning objective but serves as a foundation for other learning objectives in the course.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012)

Electromagnetic radiation can be modeled as a wave of changing electric and magnetic fields or as particles called photons. The wave model is useful for explaining many features of electromagnetic radiation, and the particle model explains other features. Quantum theory relates the two models…. Knowledge of quantum physics enabled the development of semiconductors, computer chips, and lasers, all of which are now essential components of modern imaging, communications, and information technologies

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