What this means in practice is that you can never predict where an electron will be at any given moment. You can only list its probability of being there. In a sense, as Dennis Overbye has put it, an electron doesn’t exist until it is observed. Or, put slightly differently, until it is observed an electron must be regarded as being “at once everywhere and nowhere.”
If this seems confusing, you may take some comfort in knowing that it was confusing to physicists, too. Overbye notes: “Bohr once commented that a person who wasn’t outraged on first hearing about quantum theory didn’t understand what had been said.” Heisenberg, when asked how one could envision an atom, replied: “Don’t try.”
So the atom turned out to be quite unlike the image that most people had created. The electron doesn’t fly around the nucleus like a planet around its sun, but instead takes on the more amorphous aspect of a cloud. The “shell” of an atom isn’t some hard shiny casing, as illustrations sometimes encourage us to suppose, but simply the outermost of these fuzzy electron clouds. The cloud itself is essentially just a zone of statistical probability marking the area beyond which the electron only very seldom strays. Thus an atom, if you could see it, would look more like a very fuzzy tennis ball than a hard-edged metallic sphere (but not much like either or, indeed, like anything you’ve ever seen; we are, after all, dealing here with a world very different from the one we see around us).