Quantum Mechanics Observed By The Human Eye

Remember when just the other day we were talking about the future of storage and how quantum mechanics is on the pipe dream, it's totally magic list for now? Yeah. Me too. Thing is, shit just got real: Updated.

Real and more importantly observable. Observable is important because until this week when one talked about quantum mechanics, they were either spouting a lot of unproven theory about things way too tiny to be measured or they were Lt Cmdr Geordi LaForge on the engineering deck of the Enterprise D.

No longer!

A team of scientists has succeeded in putting an object large enough to be visible to the naked eye into a mixed quantum state of moving and not moving.

Bwah? It reads like science fiction to me, but apparently science guy Andrew Cleland and his team, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, were able to cool a tiny 30-micrometre metal paddle to the point where it reached a quantum mechanical ground state. Or, as my limited understand calls it, the place where nature starts to get all freaky deaky.

After the cooling process was complete, Cleland and company were able to "simultaneously set the paddle moving while leaving it standing still". Again: The metal paddle was both vibrating and not vibrating at the same time in a way that was observable by the naked eye.

Are you freaking out yet? Because I know a few cats in dark boxes that are right now.

Updated: Obviously, quantum mechanics is not, nor will be, my area of expertise. As AreWeThereYeti explains better than I, "It's important to realise that they didn't actually observe it in a superposition. All they said was that the paddle is large enough that it could be observed by the naked eye, but not while it is in a superposition state."

Right. So the object is observable by the human eye. Mind slightly less blown.

Updated: Here's Justin's reply to AreWeThereYeti's comment. Interesting, record-correcting, stuff in there:

As a physics major and quantum researcher, this article drove me nuts. I had to do some recovery explanation on Facebook when I saw my friend post it a couple of days ago. The Nature article butchered it and told a blatant lie which obscured the whole significance of the experiment.

Quantum mechanics says that every system has a zero-point energy. That means that after a certain point, you can't extract any more energy out of a system, it has a minimum energy. For oscillators this means that they can never stand still. So theoretically, no object, even every day ones, can stand perfectly still.

Normally, for a large object, the minimum energy is so small that it exceeds the ability for a detector to tell it apart from zero. So to us, it could be perfectly still, we can't tell. We trust quantum mechanics and assume it's actually non-zero.

What's cool about this experiment is that they got a large object down to its minimum energy state and were able to show that it still had a non-zero amount of energy! It was still moving and couldn't be made to stop! So it shows a large scale case where we can actually show that quantum mechanical effects (non-zero minimum energy) actually hold, without taking them on faith.

If you read the Science article on it, you will notice this phenomena is described. In Nature, they explicitly say that the experimenters showed that the board had no vibrational energy whatsoever. That's a blatant lie! And it strips away all the importance!

Even in Science they mention the superpostition thing (though much much more carefully) but as Yeti pointed out, its a load of crap. The whole mystery of quantum mechanics is that you can't observe a superposition state. As they say in Science, it was "somewhat" shown to be in a superposition and "indirectly".

Furthermore, it's not that it's "moving and not moving simultaneously". We can't say that really. It's more accurate to say that the concept of movement just doesn't apply. It's like trying to say what visible color a certain song is. It just doesn't make sense to talk about it in those terms. With a superposition, it's the same thing, the concept we are used to talking about just doesn't apply to that state. It's not well-defined. This is very strange in and of itself. How can movement/vibration not apply to a stick? In fact, quantum says that the property of position ("where is it?") doesn't really apply to any particle! Weird stuff!

What's cool about a large object in a superposition state is that it rarely happens because it would normally having a bunch of particles and junk hitting it, "looking at it", and thus it couldn't be in a superposition state.

Also, one should be careful to note that in this case, it isn't in a superposition of moving and not moving. It is of moving and barely moving.

The debate continues.

[Nature via Kottke]

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