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The Sciences

#17: Quantum Weirdness Enters the Larger World

Eight-legged molecule may be the strangest--and biggest--new quantum phenom on the block.

By Katie PalmerJanuary 9, 2012 6:00 AM


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An octopus-shaped molecule is giving Schrödinger’s cat competition as the mascot of the bizarre world of quantum physics, where matter can simultaneously exist in different states. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment posited that a cat behaving according to quantum principles could be dead and alive at the same time. We are spared such paradoxes because the rules of quantum physics seem confined to subatomic objects— in the human-scale world, a cat is either alive or dead.

Now University of Vienna physicist Markus Arndt has designed an experiment suggesting that larger objects may also possess such strange quantum duality. Physicists can confirm that subatomic matter exists as both wave and particle by observing interference patterns, or overlapping waves. But as molecules grow larger they tend to collapse into a single, fixed state, making it more difficult to register the patterns. While working with synthetic organic molecules, Arndt’s group has observed interference patterns for the largest molecule ever: a 430-atom behemoth with 8 tentacles radiating from its center, earning it the nickname, “the quantum octopus.”

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