George Musser in Science:
Nearly 60 years ago, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Eugene Wigner captured one of the many oddities of quantum mechanics in a thought experiment. He imagined a friend of his, sealed in a lab, measuring a particle such as an atom while Wigner stood outside. Quantum mechanics famously allows particles to occupy many locations at once—a so-called superposition—but the friend’s observation “collapses” the particle to just one spot. Yet for Wigner, the superposition remains: The collapse occurs only when he makes a measurement sometime later. Worse, Wigner also sees the friend in a superposition. Their experiences directly conflict.
Now, researchers in Australia and Taiwan offer perhaps the sharpest demonstration that Wigner’s paradox is real. In a study published this week in Nature Physics, they transform the thought experiment into a mathematical theorem that confirms the irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of the scenario. The team also tests the theorem with an experiment, using photons as proxies for the humans. Whereas Wigner believed resolving the paradox requires quantum mechanics to break down for large systems such as human observers, some of the new study’s authors believe something just as fundamental is on thin ice: objectivity. It could mean there is no such thing as an absolute fact, one that is as true for me as it is for you.
“It’s a bit disconcerting,” says co-author Nora Tischler of Griffith University. “A measurement outcome is what science is based on. If somehow that’s not absolute, it’s hard to imagine.”