Scientific progress has been inseparable from better measurements.
Before 1927, only human ingenuity seemed to limit how precisely we could measure things. Then Werner Heisenberg discovered that quantum mechanics imposes a fundamental limit on the precision of some simultaneous measurements. The better you pin down a particle’s position, for instance, the less certain you can possibly be about its momentum. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle put an end to the dream of a perfectly knowable world.
In the 1980s, physicists began to glimpse a silver lining around the cloud of quantum uncertainty. Quantum mechanics, they learned, can be harnessed to aid measurement rather than hinder it — the thesis of a growing discipline known as quantum metrology. In 2019, gravitational wave hunters used a quantum metrological technique called quantum squeezing to improve the sensitivity of the LIGO detectors by a whopping 40%. Other groups have employed the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to precisely measure weak magnetic fields.
But the most controversial and counterintuitive strategy for exploiting quantum mechanics to boost precision is called postselection. In this approach, researchers take photons, or particles of light, that carry information about some system of interest and filter some of them out; the photons that survive this filtering enter a detector. Over the past 15 years, experiments using postselection have measured distances and angles remarkably precisely, suggesting that discarding photons is somehow beneficial. “The community still debates how useful it is and whether [postselection is] a genuinely quantum phenomenon,” said Noah Lupu-Gladstein, a graduate student at the University of Toronto.
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