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It’s one of the oddest tenets of quantum theory: a particle can be in two places at once—yet we only ever see it here or there. Textbooks state that the act of observing the particle “collapses” it, such that it appears at random in only of its two locations. But physicists quarrel over why that would happen, if indeed it does. Now, one of the most plausible mechanisms for quantum collapse—gravity—has suffered a setback.

The gravity hypothesis traces its origins to Hungarian physicists Károlyházy Frigyes in the 1960s and Lajos Diósi in the 1980s. The basic idea is that the gravitational field of any object stands outside quantum theory. It resists being placed into awkward combinations, or “superpositions,” of different states. So if a particle is made to be both here and there, its gravitational field tries to do the same—but the field cannot endure the tension for long; it collapses and takes the particle with it.

Renowned University of Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose championed the hypothesis in the late 1980s because, he says, it removes the anthropocentric notion that the measurement itself somehow causes the collapse. “It takes place in the physics, and it’s not because somebody comes and looks at it.”

Still, the hypothesis seemed impossible to probe with any realistic technology, notes Diósi, now at the Wigner Research Center, and a co-author on the new paper. “For 30 years, I had been always criticized in my country that I speculated on something which was totally untestable.”

New methods now make this doable. In the new study, Diósi and other scientists looked for one of the many ways, whether by gravity or some other mechanism, that a quantum collapse would reveal itself: A particle that collapses would swerve randomly, heating up the system of which it is part. “It is as if you gave a kick to a particle,” says co-author Sandro Donadi of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

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Category: Science