The Sciences

Repost: Quantum Interrogation

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMay 26, 2010 10:58 PM

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• First, objects can exist in "superpositions" of the characteristics we can measure about them. For example, if we have an item of food, according to old-fashioned classical mechanics it could perhaps be "salad" or "steak." But according to quantum mechanics, the true state of the food could be a combination, known as a wavefunction, which takes the form (food) = a(salad) + b(steak), where a and b are some numerical coefficients. That is not to say (as you might get the impression) that we are not sure whether the food is salad or steak; rather, it really is a simultaneous superposition of both possibilities.

• The second amazing thing is that we can never observe the food to be in such a superposition; whenever we (or sleeping puppies) observe the food, we always find that it appears to be either salad or steak. (Eigenstates of the food operator, for you experts.) The numerical coefficients a and b tell us the probability of measuring either alternative; the chance we will observe salad is a^2, while the chance we will observe steak is b^2. (Obviously, then, we must have a^2 + b^2 = 1, since the total probability must add up to one [at least, in a world in which the only kinds of food are salad and steak, which we are assuming for simplicity].)

• Third and finally, the act of observing the food changes its state once and for all, to be purely whatever we have observed it to be. If we look and it's salad, the state of the food item is henceforth (food) = (salad), while if we saw that it was steak we would have (food) = (steak). That's the "collapse of the wavefunction."

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