Philip Ball, Quantum Darwinism, an Idea to Explain Objective Reality, Passes First Tests, Quanta Magazine, July 22, 2019.
The quantum-classical transition:
One of the most remarkable ideas in this theoretical framework is that the definite properties of objects that we associate with classical physics — position and speed, say — are selected from a menu of quantum possibilities in a process loosely analogous to natural selection in evolution: The properties that survive are in some sense the “fittest.” As in natural selection, the survivors are those that make the most copies of themselves. This means that many independent observers can make measurements of a quantum system and agree on the outcome — a hallmark of classical behavior.
Photo of two men standing in a lab, both wearing glasses, button down shirts and suit jackets, arms resting on the front of their bodies with hands folded at waist level, looking into the camera.
This idea, called quantum Darwinism (QD), explains a lot about why we experience the world the way we do rather than in the peculiar way it manifests at the scale of atoms and fundamental particles.
First, quantum systems must have states that are especially robust in the face of disruptive decoherence by the environment. Zurek calls these “pointer states,” because they can be encoded in the possible states of a pointer on the dial of a measuring instrument. A particular location of a particle, for instance, or its speed, the value of its quantum spin, or its polarization direction can be registered as the position of a pointer on a measuring device. Zurek argues that classical behavior — the existence of well-defined, stable, objective properties — is possible only because pointer states of quantum objects exist.
When you see an object, for example, that information is delivered to your retina by the photons scattering off it. They carry information to you in the form of a partial replica of certain aspects of the object, saying something about its position, shape and color. Lots of replicas are needed if many observers are to agree on a measured value — a hallmark of classicality. Thus, as Zurek argued in the 2000s, our ability to observe some property depends not only on whether it is selected as a pointer state, but also on how substantial a footprint it makes in the environment. The states that are best at creating replicas in the environment — the “fittest,” you might say — are the only ones accessible to measurement. That’s why Zurek calls the idea quantum Darwinism.
It turns out that the same stability property that promotes environment-induced superselection of pointer states also promotes quantum Darwinian fitness, or the capacity to generate replicas. “The environment, through its monitoring efforts, decoheres systems,” Zurek said, “and the very same process that is responsible for decoherence should inscribe multiple copies of the information in the environment.”
About a decade ago, while Riedel was working as a graduate student with Zurek, the two showed theoretically that information from some simple, idealized quantum systems is “copied prolifically into the environment,” Riedel said, “so that it’s necessary to access only a small amount of the environment to infer the value of the variables.” They calculated that a grain of dust one micrometer across, after being illuminated by the sun for just one microsecond, will have its location imprinted about 100 million times in the scattered photons.
To the test:
The experiments depended on the ability to closely monitor what information about a quantum system gets imparted to its environment. That’s not feasible for, say, a dust grain floating among countless billions of air molecules. So two of the teams created a quantum object in a kind of “artificial environment” with only a few particles in it. Both experiments — one by Paternostro and collaborators at Sapienza University of Rome, and the other by the quantum-information expert Jian-Wei Pan and co-authors at the University of Science and Technology of China — used a single photon as the quantum system, with a handful of other photons serving as the “environment” that interacts with it and broadcasts information about it. [...]
The third experimental test of QD, led by the quantum-optical physicist Fedor Jelezko at Ulm University in Germany in collaboration with Zurek and others, used a very different system and environment, consisting of a lone nitrogen atom substituting for a carbon atom in the crystal lattice of a diamond — a so-called nitrogen-vacancy defect.