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A quantum experiment suggests there’s no such thing as objective reality

Back in 1961, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Eugene Wigner outlined a thought experiment that demonstrated one of the lesser-known paradoxes of quantum mechanics. The experiment shows how the strange nature of the universe allows two observers—say, Wigner and Wigner’s friend—to experience different realities.

Since then, physicists have used the “Wigner’s Friend” thought experiment to explore the nature of measurement and to argue over whether objective facts can exist. That’s important because scientists carry out experiments to establish objective facts. But if they experience different realities, the argument goes, how can they agree on what these facts might be?

That’s provided some entertaining fodder for after-dinner conversation, but Wigner’s thought experiment has never been more than that—just a thought experiment.  

Last year, however, physicists noticed that recent advances in quantum technologies have made it possible to reproduce the Wigner’s Friend test in a real experiment. In other words, it ought to be possible to create different realities and compare them in the lab to find out whether they can be reconciled.

Wigner’s original thought experiment is straightforward in principle. It begins with a single polarized photon that, when measured, can have either a horizontal polarization or a vertical polarization. But before the measurement, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, the photon exists in both polarization states at the same time—a so-called superposition.

Wigner imagined a friend in a different lab measuring the state of this photon and storing the result, while Wigner observed from afar. Wigner has no information about his friend’s measurement and so is forced to assume that the photon and the measurement of it are in a superposition of all possible outcomes of the experiment.

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