Wait, what? Did you see or not?

A slight science journalism FAIL in a story at iO9, originally from the New Scientist:

the Title: “First Quantum Effects Seen in Visible Object”

the Lede: “Does Schrödinger’s cat really exist? You bet. The first ever quantum superposition in an object visible to the naked eye has been observed.”

the Discovery: “[researchers showed] that a tiny resonating strip of metal – only 60 micrometres long, but big enough to be seen without a microscope – can both oscillate and not oscillate at the same time.”

the Wait, what?
: “Alas, you couldn’t actually see the effect happening, because that very act of observation would take it out of superposition.” (emphasis added)

Okay: this is one of those times where “seen” (in the title) should not be used to mean “observed”. And I’d play down the “first time seen in a visible object”/”naked eye” angle, since – regardless of the scale of the object – the quantum effect itself is by definition not “visible”.

Could this be some kind of journalistic riff on the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox (dead, not dead; seen, not seen)? Perhaps this article is a FAIL and a not-FAIL at the same time, but if you read it, you spoil the effect?

Read the article and tell me what you think. Especially the physicists. Does it sound silly to you, too?


  1. #1 Jared
    March 20, 2010

    Sorry, not a physicist, but the article doesn’t make sense after reading the abstract; the two seem to be discussing different things; you should send this to Rhett from Dot Physics, he might be able to give some insight.

  2. #2 MattK
    March 20, 2010

    Very amusing. Fail. Not Fail. Wax on. Wax off. Schroedinger’s Fail. ha ha.

  3. #3 Ethan Siegel
    March 20, 2010


    Hey there. The article is not well written, but I understand what’s going on. You take a quantum bit of information. That’s a quantum object that has an unknown property — like its spin — that you could measure and know, but until you measure it, they don’t know it.

    They then hook that bit up — still without measuring it — to this resonating plate that’s 60 microns long. Then they measure whether the plate is resonating or not, and they find the probability distribution of the plate resonating corresponds to the probability distribution of the quantum bit they hooked up to it.

    They’re basically building a quantum amplifier in terms of scale, but they state that once you get big enough, it’s tough to have an isolated enough environment that won’t cause an “observation” and destroy the quantum effects. So, getting a quantum effect in a 60-micron object is pretty impressive. That’s all they’re saying.

  4. #4 Jessica Palmer
    March 20, 2010

    Aha. So what they mean is, amplifying the quantum effect through an object of visible size makes it harder to keep the effect from being observed and therefore, er, collapsed? I wish they’d made as much sense in the article, Ethan! But I’m still not quite clear on why amplifying the quantum effect makes it harder to prevent observations: is it because they have to do this close to absolute zero or something, so the bigger the apparatus, the harder that is to maintain?

  5. #5 Ethan Siegel
    March 21, 2010


    They don’t state why in the article, so I’ll have to go off of what I know. An “observation” means that *something* in the Universe interacts with your system in a way that forces it into one quantum state or another.

    The larger your system is, the higher the temperature of your system, and the more stuff is around your system all increases the probability of such an interaction. Remember, all it takes is one such interaction, and your quantum state collapses.

    It has less to do with maintaining a low temperature and more to do with an ungodly number of atoms, any one of which could give you away.

  6. #6 Jessica Palmer
    March 21, 2010

    Ha. based on your explanations, Ethan, I think the article is even MORE poorly written than I originally thought. Sigh. 🙂

  7. #7 DaleP
    March 21, 2010

    Andrew Cleland was interviewed on NPR, and addresses some of these issues.

    Not in the summary, but in the online interview is the phrase “poorly coupled to her environment”. The poor coupling lets the quantum state exist longer.

  8. #8 Jessica Palmer
    March 21, 2010

    Thanks for the link, Dale! It seems that if they’d just had Cleland write it himself with a forward by Ethan, the story would have been crystal clear (for quantum physics). I have to say, of all the subjects to ladle bad writing on, quantum physics is possibly the worst – it starts out incomprehensible and can only get murkier.

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