Quantum Darwinism Could Explain What Makes Reality Real

It’s not surprising that quantum physics has a reputation for being weird and counterintuitive. The world we’re living in sure doesn’t feel quantum mechanical. And until the 20th century, everyone assumed that the classical laws of physics devised by Isaac Newton and others—according to which objects have well-defined positions and properties at all times—would work at every scale. But Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and their contemporaries discovered that down among atoms and subatomic particles, this concreteness dissolves into a soup of possibilities. An atom typically can’t be assigned a definite position, for example—we can merely calculate the probability of finding it in various places. The vexing question then becomes: How do quantum probabilities coalesce into the sharp focus of the classical world?

Physicists sometimes talk about this changeover as the “quantum-classical transition.” But in fact there’s no reason to think that the large and the small have fundamentally different rules, or that there’s a sudden switch between them. Over the past several decades, researchers have achieved a greater understanding of how quantum mechanics inevitably becomes classical mechanics through an interaction between a particle or other microscopic system and its surrounding environment.

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. This means that many independent observers can make measurements of a quantum system and agree on the outcome—a hallmark of classical behavior.

Chaoyang Lu (left) and Jian-Wei Pan of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei led a recent experiment that tested quantum Darwinism in an artificial environment made of interacting photons. Chaoyang Lu

This idea, called quantum Darwinism (QD), explains a lot about why we experience the world the way we do rather than in the peculiar way it manifests at the scale of atoms and fundamental particles. Although aspects of the puzzle remain unresolved, QD helps heal the apparent rift between quantum and classical physics.

Only recently, however, has quantum Darwinism been put to the experimental test. Three research groups, working independently in Italy, China and Germany, have looked for the telltale signature of the natural selection process by which information about a quantum system gets repeatedly imprinted on various controlled environments. These tests are rudimentary, and experts say there’s still much more to be done before we can feel sure that QD provides the right picture of how our concrete reality condenses from the multiple options that quantum mechanics offers. Yet so far, the theory checks out.

Survival of the Fittest

At the heart of quantum Darwinism is the slippery notion of measurement—the process of making an observation. In classical physics, what you see is simply how things are. You observe a tennis ball traveling at 200 kilometers per hour because that’s its speed. What more is there to say?

In quantum physics that’s no longer true. It’s not at all obvious what the formal mathematical procedures of quantum mechanics say about “how things are” in a quantum object; they’re just a prescription telling us what we might see if we make a measurement. Take, for example, the way a quantum particle can have a range of possible states, known as a “superposition.” This doesn’t really mean it is in several states at once; rather, it means that if we make a measurement we will see one of those outcomes. Before the measurement, the various superposed states interfere with one another in a wavelike manner, producing outcomes with higher or lower probabilities.

But why can’t we see a quantum superposition? Why can’t all possibilities for the state of a particle survive right up to the human scale?