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It starts like a textbook physics experiment, with a ball attached to a spring. If a photon strikes the ball, the impact sets it oscillating very gently. But there’s a catch. Before reaching the ball, the photon encounters a half-silvered mirror, which reflects half of the light that strikes it and allows the other half to pass through.

What happens next depends on which of two extremely well-tested but conflicting theories is correct: quantum mechanics or Einstein’s theory of general relativity; these describe the small- and large-scale properties of the universe, respectively.

In a strange quantum mechanical effect called “superposition,” the photon simultaneously passes through and reflects backward off the mirror; it then both strikes and doesn’t strike the ball. If quantum mechanics works at the macroscopic level, then the ball will both begin oscillating and stay still, entering a superposition of the two states. Because the ball has mass, its gravitational field will also split into a superposition.

But according to general relativity, gravity warps space and time around the ball. The theory cannot tolerate space and time warping in two different ways, which could destabilize the superposition, forcing the ball to adopt one state or the other.

Knowing what happens to the ball could help physicists resolve the conflict between quantum mechanics and general relativity. But such experiments have long been considered infeasible: Only photon-size entities can be put in quantum superpositions, and only ball-size objects have detectable gravitational fields. Quantum mechanics and general relativity dominate in disparate domains, and they seem to converge only in enormously dense, quantum-size black holes. In the laboratory, as the physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in 2004, “any differences between their predictions are physically undetectable.”

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