One of the most remarkable ideas in this theoretical framework is that the definite properties of objects that we associate with classical physics—position and speed, say—are selected from a menu of quantum possibilities in a process loosely analogous to natural selection in evolution: The properties that survive are in some sense the “fittest.” As in natural selection, the survivors are those that make the most copies of themselves.
But at what size do quantum effects no longer apply? How big can something be and still behave like both a particle and a wave? Physicists have struggled to answer that question because the experiments have been nearly impossible to design.Now, Arndt and his team have circumvented those challenges and observed quantum wave-like properties in the largest objects to date—molecules composed of 2,000 atoms, the size of some proteins. The size of these molecules beats the previous record by two and a half times. To see this, they injected the molecules into a 5-meter-long tube. When the particles hit a target at the end, they didn’t just land as randomly scattered points. Instead, they formed an interference pattern, a striped pattern of dark and light stripes that suggests waves colliding and combining with each other. They published the work today in Nature Physics.
“It’s surprising that this works in the first place,” says Timothy Kovachy of Northwestern University, who was not involved in the experiment. It’s an extremely difficult experiment to pull off, he says, because quantum objects are delicate, transitioning suddenly from their wavelike state to their particle-like one via interactions with their environment. The larger the object, the more likely it is to knock into something, heat up, or even break apart, which triggers these transitions. To maintain the molecules in a wave-like state, the team clears a narrow path for them through the tube, like police cordoning off a parade route. They keep the tube in a vacuum and prevent the entire instrument from wobbling even the slightest bit using a system of springs and brakes. The physicists then had to carefully control the molecules’ speed, so they don’t heat up too much. “It’s really impressive,” says Kovachy.