‘What’s special about this experiment is we’ve seen quantum effects on something as large as a human’
Researchers have seen quantum fluctuations “kick” large objects such as mirrors, moving them by a tiny degree but one big enough to measure.
Such behaviour has previously been predicted by quantum physicists. But it has never before been measured.
The movements are the result of the way the universe is structured, when seen at the level of quantum mechanics: researchers describe it as a “noisy” space, where particles are constantly switching in and out of existence, which creates a low-level fuzz at all times.
Normally, that background of quantum “noise” is too subtle to detect in objects that are visible at the human-scale. But the new research shows that scientists have finally detected those movements, using new technology to watch for those fluctuations.
Researchers at the MIT LIGO Laboratory saw that the those fluctuations could move an object as big as a 40-kilogram mirror. The movement pushed the large mirrors a tiny amount, as predicted theoretically, allowing it to be measured by scientists.
The researchers were able to use special equipment called a quantum squeezer that allowed them to “manipulate” the noise so that it could be better observed.
“What’s special about this experiment is we’ve seen quantum effects on something as large as a human,” said Nergis Mavalvala, the Marble Professor and associate head of the physics department at MIT, in a statement.
“We too, every nanosecond of our existence, are being kicked around, buffeted by these quantum fluctuations. It’s just that the jitter of our existence, our thermal energy, is too large for these quantum vacuum fluctuations to affect our motion measurably. With LIGO’s mirrors, we’ve done all this work to isolate them from thermally driven motion and other forces, so that they are now still enough to be kicked around by quantum fluctuations and this spooky popcorn of the universe.”
To see the changes, researchers used the LIGO equipment that was built to detect gravitational wave. To do so, researchers built two pieces of equipment in different parts of the US that sends light down long tunnels, where it bounces off a mirror, and then is reflected back to where it started – the mirrors at the two facilities should return to the same spot at the same time, unless a gravitational wave disrupts their journey.
In the new experiment, researchers used the very precise measurements of those mirrors and the unusual conditions of the LIGO detector to measure any possible quantum “kick”, instead. They did so for watching for quantum fluctuations within the equipment, and watched for movement in the mirrors.
“This quantum fluctuation in the laser light can cause a radiation pressure that can actually kick an object,” said Lee McCuller, a research scientist at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “The object in our case is a 40-kilogram mirror, which is a billion times heavier than the nanoscale objects that other groups have measured this quantum effect in.