We’ve all heard of Schrödinger’s cat, a famous thought experiment where a cat is simultaneously alive and dead. In a new study, physicists hope to take this one step further by putting a microbe in two places at once.
In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger – one of the founders of quantum theory – first proposed his now famous thought experiment in which a cat was sealed in a box with a bit of radioactive material, a Geiger counter, a hammer, and a small vial of poison. The experiment was designed to illustrate flaws in one interpretation of quantum superposition.
The fate of Schrödinger’s cat is connected or entangled with the radioactive material. The radioactive material within the box had a 50/50 chance of decaying over the course of an hour. If it decayed, the Geiger counter would detect the radiation and the hammer would smash the vial, ultimately killing the cat. The outcome could only be determined by opening the box and observing the system, until then the cat would be perceived as both alive and dead.
Schrödinger thought this was absurd as a living organism could not be alive and dead at the same time. More recent studies have gone on to show that the idea of superposition does in fact work on the quantum scale. The rules governing quantum mechanics allows objects to be in two states at once, a concept known as superposition.
The scientists, led by Tongcang Li of Purdue University, hope to suspend a living organism – in this case a common microbe – in a superposition, meaning two different positions at the same time. This will be the first time this has been done with an organism.
“Although it has attracted enormous interest, no quantum superposition state of an organism has been realized. So we propose a straightforward approach to put a microbe into a superposition of two spatial states, that is, the microbe will be at two different positions at the same time,” Dr. Li told the Guardian.
The research builds on a previous study from the University of Colorado where scientists placed a vibrating aluminum membrane in a state of superposition. Dr. Li plans to add a microbe to his experiment, placing it on top of the membrane. Since the membrane is in a state of superposition, the microbe will be as well. Li plans to take his experiment to the next level by entangling the position of the microbe with the spin of an electron inside it.
The experiment has implications outside of the lab as it could help detect defects in DNA and proteins within the microbe. It could also help researchers develop powerful quantum computers able to solve multiple problems simultaneously. The field of cryptography is also looking to the quantum realm to help develop more secure encryption keys.
Although Li proposed the experiment, he may not be the best equipped to carry it out. He wants to collaborate with better-equipped labs and other researchers in the field of quantum electromechanics, and is optimistic that we may see a microbe in a state of superposition within three years.