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Does a massive quantum particle – such as an atom – in a double-slit experiment behave differently depending on when it is observed? John Wheeler's famous "delayed choice" Gedankenexperiment asked this question in 1978, and the answer has now been experimentally realized with massive particles for the first time. The result demonstrates that it does not make sense to decide whether a massive particle can be described by its wave or particle behaviour until a measurement has been made. The techniques used could have practical applications for future physics research, and perhaps for information theory.

In the famous double-slit experiment, single particles, such as photons, pass one at a time through a screen containing two slits. If either path is monitored, a photon seemingly passes through one slit or the other, and no interference will be seen. Conversely, if neither is checked, a photon will appear to have passed through both slits simultaneously before interfering with itself, acting like a wave. In 1978 American theoretical physicist John Wheeler proposed a series of thought experiments wherein he wondered whether a particle apparently going through a slit could be considered to have a well-defined trajectory, in which it passes through one slit or both. In the experiments, the decision to observe the photons is made only after they have been emitted, thereby testing the possible effects of the observer.

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