Schrodinger’s Cat Comes to Life in Saturday’s New York Times

By Ron Cohen

I have been alive 79 years and 11 months without ever having encountered Schrodinger’s Cat. That changed this weekend.

On page one of Saturday’s New York Times was a story that probably would not have been played so prominently in any other newspaper. It told about a white-tailed deer which, to the delight of the city dwellers of East Harlem, had been cavorting for several days in Jackie Robinson Park. Its capture and placement in a city animal shelter ignited a turf war between Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The deer languished for days in bureaucratic limbo, with De Blasio pressing for humane euthanization and Cuomo pushing for transport and release upstate. Back and forth the two struggled. Then moments before the deer was to be loaded into a van to head to the country, it died.

Deep in the Times story were these blithe sentences by reporter Andy Newman:

The deer was condemned to die, then he was not, then he was, then he was not.

For a few surreal minutes Thursday night, the deer, like Schrödinger’s cat, was both alive and dead, with a city official insisting he had already been euthanized and the state insisting he had not.

There it was: Schrodinger’s Cat. Stumped, I sought the counsel of Clementine, my iPhone Google Lady. She responded with this from Wikipedia:

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 that 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.

This was mostly Danish to me, but I could not help but marvel at how the clever Mr. Newman had introduced a cat into a story about a deer, employing a reference that certainly must be among the most obscure ever to grace a daily newspaper.

At brunch at a friend’s house that afternoon, I explained the story and the Schrodinger’s Cat theorem to two former UPI colleagues, Mike Feinsilber and Richard Lerner. Neither had ever heard of Mr. Schrodinger nor his cat.

That night, when I logged onto my Facebook account, I could scarcely believe my eyes. The first item was a commercial for this T-Shirt: A cat behind prison bars and the inscription “Schrodinger’s Cat. Wanted Dead & Alive.”

Mind you, I had discussed this with no one but my four friends at brunch and yet, for the second time in one day, the infernal cat was dogging me.

Can anyone doubt Big Brother is everywhere?
Ron Cohen is a retired journalist who worked for United Press International for 25 years and Gannett News Service for 15.


  1. Paul Chernoff says

    Maybe I have lived my life in too nerdy an environment but Schrödinger’s cat has been in my popular culture references since college. And now for a joke:

    Heisenberg and Schrödinger get pulled over for speeding.
    The cop asks Heisenberg “Do you know how fast you were going?”
    Heisenberg replies, “No, but we know exactly where we are!”
    The officer looks at him confused and says “You were going 108 miles per hour!”
    Heisenberg throws his arms up and cries, “Great! Now we’re lost!”
    The officer looks over the car and asks Schrödinger if the two men have anything in the trunk.
    “A cat,” Schrödinger replies.
    The cop opens the trunk and yells “Hey! This cat is dead.”
    Schrödinger angrily replies, “Well he is now.”

    • Barnard Law Collier says

      Dear Ron,

      “The deer was condemned to die, then he was not, then he was, then he was not.

      “For a few surreal minutes Thursday night, the deer, like Schrȫdinger’s cat, was both alive and dead, with a state official insisting he had already been euthanized and the state insisting he had not.”

      Why do you think Andy Newman’s poetic lines were entombed “deep inside” instead of gracing the front page, where they belonged?

      You seem rather certain that the nifty Schrȫdinger’s analogy by Andy Newman is among the most “obscure” bits of mega-intellectual funny business ever to grace a daily newspaper.

      I’m less sure than you about that superlative.

      My hope is that some of the pixel-stained wretches who toil for newspapers nation-wide are able to fashion a few crafty bazingas that slip stealthily past the vigilant hounds at the copy desk.

      What perplexes me, and puts me in a kind of Schrȫdinger’s state of mind, is how smart bits of cleverness about recherché ideas are so well understood by so much of “average America” and the whole rest of the world, in translation no less.

      You probably know and love Big Bang Theory. It’s perhaps the most watched TV program (including re-runs) in America, Europe, India, South America, and perhaps Russia. Steven Hawking watches it (and does voice-overs for it); so does Xi Jinping; and half the population of China are avid fans.

      Its hero is Dr. Sheldon Cooper, who over the past ten years has done at least eight dozen Schrȫdinger’s cat jokes (the precise number is probably known to a BBT scorekeeper) and a lot of other abstruse theoretical physics riffs.

      Perhaps a billion people on Earth know all they need to about that fickle corpse/cat, and they know enough to laugh about it. There’s even a book about quantum mechanics named Schrȫdinger’s Kittens (which may or may not hint at the fate and gender of his cat).

      There is something weirdly enthralling about the concept of Schrȫdinger’s cat. I hypothesize that most people laugh when they recognize the truth, the strangeness, and the ubiquity of duality. To know and not know simultaneously.

      Why, for example, does a story about the most uncommon of human beings, in this case Dr. Cooper, cause so many common human beings to watch, understand, and laugh?

      Shakespeare earned his bread and butter writing about duality. In The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, by Thomas Mann, the duality is all about big men thinking small and small men thinking big.

      People almost everywhere seem to recognize and even enjoy the daily oxymorons of life. People get it: even a supremely gifted mind like Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s may be both alive and dead or both at once.

      So if you are correct that a Schrȫdinger’s joke is so journalistically rare, even in the most erudite newspaper on Earth, then what is wrong with even our best newspapers that a popular TV show gets all the brightest and smartest laugh lines and the kind of audience that sustains them?

      Here’s an example of what BBT milks laughs from:

      Shrȫdinger’s friendship, by Sheldon:

      “At this moment our relationship exists in two mutually contradictory states. Until you either do not go or go to Will Weaton’s party, you are simultaneously my friend and not my friend. I’m characterizing this phenomenon as Shrȫdinger’s friendship…”

      Penny (not in Youtube video unfortunately):

      “There’s this cat in a box and until you open it, it is either dead or alive or both. Although back in Nebraska, our cat got stuck in my brother’s camp trunk and we did not need to open it to know the result was a dead cat in there.”

      That ‘s enough about Mr. Schrȫdinger’s infernal cat.

      Have you heard about Mr. Schrȫdinger’s hat?

      It’s a really wild true story of how invisibility let’s us envision the nano-world.

      Happy holidays. Barney

  2. Ervin S. Duggan says

    This is what I love best: obscure jokes among intelligent people.

  3. Mr. Collier’s correct: Schroedinger, Heisenberg, etc., just aren’t all that obscure anymore. Some might take satisfaction in equating a false obscurity with intelligence …but that would be wrong, to make a now-obscure Watergate reference. 🙂

    What I love is continuing to discover new things, even as one ages!

    Of possible interest:

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