## Researchers demonstrate ‘quantum surrealism’

New research demonstrates that particles at the quantum level can in fact be seen as behaving something like billiard balls rolling along a table, and not merely as the probabilistic smears that the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests. But there’s a catch – the tracks the particles follow do not always behave as one would expect from “realistic” trajectories, but often in a fashion that has been termed “surrealistic”.

In a new version of an old experiment, CIFAR Senior Fellow Aephraim Steinberg (University of Toronto) and colleagues tracked the trajectories of photons as the particles traced a path through one of two slits and onto a screen. But the researchers went further, and observed the “nonlocal” influence of another photon that the first photon had been entangled with.

The results counter a long-standing criticism of an interpretation of quantum mechanics called the De Broglie-Bohm theory. Detractors of this interpretation had faulted it for failing to explain the behaviour of entangled photons realistically. For Steinberg, the results are important because they give us a way of visualizing quantum mechanics that’s as just as valid as the standard interpretation, and perhaps more intuitive.

“I’m less interested in focusing on the philosophical question of what’s ‘really’ out there. I think the fruitful question is more down to earth. Rather than thinking about different metaphysical interpretations, I would phrase it in terms of having different pictures. Different pictures can be useful. They can help shape better intuitions.”

At stake is what is “really” happening at the quantum level. The uncertainty principle tells us that we can never know both a particle’s position and momentum with complete certainty. And when we do interact with a quantum system, for instance by measuring it, we disturb the system. So if we fire a photon at a screen and want to know where it will hit, we’ll never know for sure exactly where it will hit or what path it will take to get there.

The standard interpretation of quantum mechanics holds that this uncertainty means that there is no “real” trajectory between the light source and the screen. The best we can do is to calculate a “wave function” that shows the odds of the photon being in any one place at any time, but won’t tell us where it is until we make a measurement.

On the other hand, the De Broglie-Bohm interpretation says that the photons do have real trajectories that are guided by a “pilot wave” that accompanies the particle. The wave is still probabilistic, but the particle takes a real trajectory from source to target. It doesn’t simply “collapse” into a particular location once it’s measured.

In 2011 Steinberg and his colleagues showed that they could follow trajectories for photons by subjecting many identical particles to measurements so weak that the particles were barely disturbed, and then averaging out the information. This method showed trajectories that looked similar to classical ones – say, those of balls flying through the air.

But critics had pointed out a problem with this viewpoint. Quantum mechanics also tells us that two particles can be entangled, so that a measurement of one particle affects the other. The critics complained that in some cases, a measurement of one particle would lead to an incorrect prediction of the trajectory of the entangled particle, hence the term “surreal trajectories.”

In the most recent experiment, Steinberg and colleagues showed that the surrealism was a consequence of non-locality – the fact that the particles were able to influence one another instantaneously at a distance. In fact, the “incorrect” predictions of trajectories by the entangled photon were actually a consequence of where in their course the entangled particles were measured. Considering both particles together, the measurements made sense and were consistent with real trajectories.

Steinberg points out that both the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics and the De Broglie-Bohm interpretation are consistent with experimental evidence, and are mathematically equivalent. But it is helpful in some circumstances to visualize real trajectories, rather than wave function collapses, he says.

The paper, “Experimental Nonlocal and Surreal Bohmian Trajectories,” was published online Feb. 19 by *Science Advances*.

## Comments

### Leave a Comment

## Related Ideas

## CIFAR Research Workshops: Call for Proposals

For more than three decades, CIFAR’s global research programs have connected many of the world’s best minds – across borders...

## Quantum Teleportation Across a Metropolitan Fibre Network

Quantum teleportation allows quantum states to be, in principle, teleported over arbitrarily long distances and has several applications in communication...

## New distance record for quantum teleportation

A team of physicists has succeeded in teleporting the quantum state of a photon over a distance of more than...

## Building stable qubits in diamonds

The potential power of a quantum computer comes from the qubit – a unit of information which quantum physics allows...

## Canada’s role as a clean tech research leader

Last month I met with Dr. Mario Molina, the chemist who more than 40 years ago made the Nobel Prize-winning...

## Making waves in interdisciplinary research

One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein predicted that gravity could propagate in the form of gravitational waves, bending the fabric...

Can all the weirdness of double slit experiment be explained by the fact that we are only looking at it from a stationary frame perspective? If you look at the special relativity equation for total energy you see that it has a velocity of the speed of light. In that perspective it looks entirely like a wave of light and would defract and interfere just like light. In our reference frame we observe the momentum energy component and the rest energy component of the total energy separately as the velocity of a particle with rest mass. So it looks like you can have a wave and a particle at the same time.