Saturday, 4 June 2011

Uncertainty isn't what it used to be


One of the central planks of quantum mechanics was this week called into question in a new take on the classic two-slit experiment.

One of the central notions in quantum mechanics is that light and matter can behave as both particle and wave. The principle of "complementarity" has always been understood to prevent the observation of both behaviours simultaneously. However, new research published in Science on 2 June, suggests that physicists at the University of Toronto and Griffith University in Brisbane have for the first time observed both behaviours at the same time.

In Thomas Young's 19th century "two-slit experiment", light is passed through two tiny holes and is then viewed on a screen. The two beams interfere with each other, forming a diffraction pattern, as if the light were made of waves. If one of the slits is blocked, the light can be seen as a single beam on the screen, as if light were made of particles. The two-slit experiment shows that, depending on how it's measured, a photon will act like either a particle or a wave, but never both.

Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto and Sacha Kocsis of Griffith recreated this experiment, easily observing the interference pattern indicative of the wave nature of light. But significantly, they were also able measure the path of the particles of light.

Science reporter, Adrian Cho elaborates on the importance of their new research:
"For decades, [the] experiment has served as physicists' canonical example of the uncertainty principle: the law of nature that says you can't know both where a subatomic particle is and how fast it is moving, and thus can't trace its trajectory. But now physicists have tweaked that classic experiment to show that they can follow the average path taken by many particles."

Steinberg and his team allowed photons to pass through a calcite crystal which gave each photon a small deviation in its path. By measuring the light patterns on a camera, the team was able to deduce what paths the photons had taken. They clearly saw the interference pattern which infers the wave nature of light, but surprisingly they also could see from which slits the photons had come from, a telltale sign of the particle nature of light.

Marlan Scully, a quantum physicist at Texas University, commented:

"It's a beautiful series of measurements by an excellent group, the likes of which I've not seen before.",

"This paper is probably the first that has really put this weak measurement idea into a real experimental realisation." He said that the work would - inevitably - raise philosophical issues as well. "The exact way to think about what they're doing will be researched for some time, and the weak measurement concept itself will be a matter of controversy"

Professor Steinberg commented, "I feel like we're starting to pull back a veil on what nature really is".



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