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Magnify a speck of dirt a thousand times, and suddenly it no longer seems to play by the same rules. Its outline, for example, won’t look well-defined most of the time and will resemble a diffuse, sprawling cloud. That’s the bizarre realm of quantum mechanics. “In some books, you’ll find they say a particle is in various places at once,” says physicist Markus Arndt of the University of Vienna in Austria. “Whether that really happens is a matter of interpretation.”

Another way of putting it: Quantum particles sometimes act like waves, spread out in space. They can slosh into each other and even back onto themselves. But if you poke at this wave-like object with certain instruments, or if the object interacts in specific ways with nearby particles, it loses its wavelike properties and starts acting like a discrete point—a particle. Physicists have observed atoms, electrons, and other minutiae transitioning between wave-like and particle-like states for decades.

But at what size do quantum effects no longer apply? How big can something be and still behave like both a particle and a wave? Physicists have struggled to answer that question because the experiments have been nearly impossible to design.

Now, Arndt and his team have circumvented those challenges and observed quantum wave-like properties in the largest objects to date—molecules composed of 2,000 atoms, the size of some proteins. The size of these molecules beats the previous record by two and a half times. To see this, they injected the molecules into a 5-meter-long tube. When the particles hit a target at the end, they didn’t just land as randomly scattered points. Instead, they formed an interference pattern, a striped pattern of dark and light stripes that suggests waves colliding and combining with each other. They published the work today in Nature Physics.

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Category: Science