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LATEST DIALOGUES Measuring Quantum Cats and Their Smiles

creatticacatIt’s been a strange summer for quantum physics, but when it comes to this unusual branch of science, strange is actually a sign of progress.

In a study published July 31 in Nature, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, carried out an experiment involving a quantum circuit. Using special techniques, they were able to monitor the shift of this system from a quantum to a classical state in order to determine the most likely path that it would follow.

Quantum systems are those that exist in multiple states at one time—until the system is measured. This is based on Schrodinger’s cat, a thought experiment in which a cat inside a closed box with a vial of poison exists in two states at the same time—alive and dead—until the box is opened (aka measured).

The researchers found that by gently monitoring a quantum system, without causing it to collapse into a definite state, scientists might one day be able to nudge a system—such as a chemical reaction—in one direction or the other, even if it’s not the most likely outcome.

The second study involved a different kind of feline—the quantum Cheshire cat, named after the curious creature from Alice in Wonderland whose smile lingered long after the rest of the body had faded.

Researchers from the Vienna University of Technology, in a study published July 29 in Nature Communications, showed that it was possible to separate a neutron from one of its physical properties—the magnetic moment, which describes how the neutron interacts with an external magnetic field.

Using a technique called interferometry, the researchers split a beam of neutrons into two streams, each with a different spin for the magnetic moment. Using quantum filters and special detection equipment, the researchers found that the system acted as if the neutrons moved along one path, while the magnetic moment traveled along another—essentially separating the Cheshire cat from its smile.

While the neutrons didn’t really lose their magnetic moment, this curious experiment suggests that scientists might be able to separate a quantum system from one of its properties. This could come in handy if that property is interfering with the measurement of another one—in the same way that it’s difficult to look at a cat that’s smiling at you. This experiment reminds us of what sages have been pointing to, that there is no experiencer and no experience, but only experiencing. As Krishnamurti wrote in “The First and Last Freedom”:

“You can experiment with this for yourself very simply and very easily. Next time you are angry or jealous or greedy or violent or whatever it may be, watch yourself. In that state, “you” are not. There is only that state of being. The moment, the second afterwards, you term it, you name it, you call it jealousy, anger, greed; so you have created immediately the observer and the observed, the experiencer and the experienced. When there is the experiencer and the experienced, then the experiencer tries to modify the experience, change it, remember things about it and so on, and therefore maintains the division between himself and the experienced. If you don’t name that feeling—which means you are not seeking a result, you are not condemning, you are merely silently aware of the feeling—then you will see that in that state of feeling, of experiencing, there is no observer and no observed, because the observer and the observed are a joint phenomenon and so there is only experiencing.”

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Shawn Radcliffe is a science writer, yoga instructor and creator of fiction and humor. He has written about science, health, meditation and yoga for, Men's Fitness, Greater Good and more. He also tackles the humorous implications of spirituality and science on his blog, Branáin - Ravenously Curious.

8 Responses to “Measuring Quantum Cats and Their Smiles”

  1. August 13, 2014 at 9:39 pm, Sebastian Taeggi said:

    Krishnamurti says:” you will see that…there is no observer”. What does that even mean? Who is the “you” if not the observer? 😮

    • August 13, 2014 at 9:44 pm, breakingglass27 said:

      “…because the observer and the observed are a joint phenomenon and so there is only experiencing.”

  2. August 14, 2014 at 1:17 am, Mit Jones said:

    The observer and the observed are the same they both appear in awareness and then dissolve into space, In the end there is only space, they are both simply thoughts,

  3. August 15, 2014 at 11:53 am, Peter Payne said:

    Sebastian–the question you ask, “what does this really mean?” can’t really be answered intellectually, by explaining concepts, but only empirically, through actual experience. The Buddha said, “don’t believe what I say; do what I did, and you will discover what I did.” There are practices, experiential explorations, which can lead to this realization/experience of “no observer, just the experience”, but in the absence of actually tasting this experience (actually, strictly speaking, it is not an experience), conceptual explanations cannot convey it.

  4. August 15, 2014 at 12:01 pm, Peter Payne said:

    Although the behaviour of quantum systems is undoubtedly fascinating, and “reminds us of” statements from spiritual teachings, I do not go along with the current idea that quantum physics somehow “proves” or supports spiritual teachings. .”Quantum Spirituality” enthusiasts often forget that the vast majority of quantum physicists do not see QP as having any relation to consciousness or spirituality. And training in the theory, math, and lab techniques of QP has zero relation to spiritual training, practice and realization.

  5. August 15, 2014 at 2:47 pm, Mit Jones said:

    Our reality is what we believe, some see spirit in all things, in the natural world and the world of quantum mechanics, of course they are the same world, just a different point of view. For those who look to Quantum mechanics they’ll continually find questions, for the quest of the scientist to answer questions,once answered, what then?

    They are on a path they hope will never end.

    For those seeking spirituality it is the same, they both eventually come to the emptiness of space, some find more question some feel they have found the answer, they are both seeking knowledge it is simply a different point of view.

    Once one discovers it’s an illusion, everything else is just figuring out the trick.

  6. August 16, 2014 at 1:41 pm, gurucharan khalsa said:

    The physicists I work with on these projects are well aware of the epistimological and ontological distinctions between experience, modelling, QM and the like. What is fascinating is exploring the nature of holism in our experience and in nature. And then mapping a bridge that shows the natural co-existence of an interiority in nature that includes subjectivity. It is very intriguing that causality and determinism and holism exist compatibly and even require the uncertainty we find. It gives new insight to temporal nonlocality and free will as well. So openness to exploration and humility to our own concepts is probably the best path in light of such continuing discoveries.

  7. August 16, 2014 at 7:52 pm, Mit Jones said:

    From our point of view our universe both micro and macro are made up of space and form, each is made up of information, but that only takes on meaning if we choose to analyze it, name the parts to convey that meaning. In the end if it has meaning, it is only relevant to us. So the real question is who are we, are we space or form.

    If we examine ourselves through the spectrum of time we can recognize the contradiction of your own existence. Only in memory do you exist in the past and
    only in imagination do you exist in the future, these are simply thoughts and
    ideas. We have invented the mind and now we believe we are that, if we realize the mind as we know it could not have existed before language, we will realize we are not that. What was memory before language what was imagination?/ Are we the processors or the observer of the process?

    I admit to having a lot of questions,primarily because I know I don’t know anything, it took me a long time to get there but I consider it to be perhaps my greatest accomplishments.

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