Quantum Hyperion

By Sean Carroll | October 23, 2008 7:51 pm

One of the annoying/fascinating things about quantum mechanics is the fact the world doesn’t seem to be quantum-mechanical. When you look at something, it seems to have a location, not a superposition of all possible locations; when it travels from one place to another, it seems to take a path, not a sum over all paths. This frustration was expressed by no lesser a person than Albert Einstein, quoted by Abraham Pais, quoted in turn by David Mermin in a lovely article entitled “Is the Moon There when Nobody Looks?“:

I recall that during one walk Einstein suddenly stopped, turned to me and asked whether I really believed that the moon exists only when I looked at it.

The conventional quantum-mechanical answer would be “Sure, the moon exists when you’re not looking at it. But there is no such thing as `the position of the moon’ when you are not looking at it.”

Nevertheless, astronomers over the centuries have done a pretty good job predicting eclipses as if there really was something called `the position of the moon,’ even when nobody (as far as we know) was looking at it. There is a conventional quantum-mechanical explanation for this, as well: the correspondence principle, which states that the predictions of quantum mechanics in the limit of a very large number of particles (a macroscopic body) approach those of classical Newtonian mechanics. This is one of those vague but invaluable rules of thumb that was formulated by Niels Bohr back in the salad days of quantum mechanics. If it sounds a little hand-wavy, that’s because it is.

The vagueness of the correspondence principle prods a careful physicist into formulating a more precise version, or perhaps coming up with counterexamples. And indeed, counterexamples exist: namely, when the classical predictions for the system in question are chaotic. In chaotic systems, tiny differences in initial conditions grow into substantial differences in the ultimate evolution. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that it is hard to map the predictions for classically chaotic systems onto average values of predictions for quantum observables. Essentially, tiny quantum uncertainties in the state of a chaotic system grow into large quantum uncertainties before too long, and the system is no longer accurately described by a classical limit, even if there are large numbers of particles.

Some years ago, Wojciech Zurek and Juan Pablo Paz described a particularly interesting real-world example of such a system: Hyperion, a moon of Saturn that features an irregular shape and a spongy surface texture.

The orbit of Hyperion around Saturn is fairly predictable; happily, even for lumpy moons, the center of mass follows a smooth path. But the orientation of Hyperion, it turns out, is chaotic — the moon tumbles unpredictably as it orbits, as measured by Voyager 2 as well as Earth-based telescopes. Its orbit is highly elliptical, and resonates with the orbit of Titan, which exerts a torque on its axis. If you knew Hyperion’s orientation fairly precisely at some time, it would be completely unpredictable within a month or so (the Lyapunov exponent is about 40 days). More poetically, if you lived there, you wouldn’t be able to predict when the Sun would next rise.

So — is Hyperion oriented when nobody looks? Zurek and Paz calculate (not recently — this is fun, not breaking news) that if Hyperion were isolated from the rest of the universe, it would evolve into a non-localized quantum state over a period of about 20 years. It’s an impressive example of quantum uncertainty on a macroscopic scale.

Except that Hyperion is not isolated from the rest of the universe. If nothing else, it’s constantly bombarded by photons from the Sun, as well as from the rest of the universe. And those photons have their own quantum states, and when they bounce off Hyperion the states become entangled. But there’s no way to keep track of the states of all those photons after they interact and go their merry way. So when you speak about “the quantum state of Hyperion,” you really mean the state we would get by averaging over all the possible states of the photons we didn’t keep track of. And that averaging process — considering the state of a certain quantum system when we haven’t kept track of the states of the many other systems with which it is entangled — leads to decoherence. Roughly speaking, the photons bouncing off of Hyperion act like a series of many little “observations of the wavefunction,” collapsing it into a state of definite orientation.

So, in the real world, not only does this particular moon (of Saturn) exist when we’re not looking, it’s also in a pretty well-defined orientation — even if, in a simple model that excludes the rest of the universe, its wave function would be all spread out after only 20 years of evolution. As Zurek and Paz conclude, “Decoherence caused by the environment … is not a subterfuge of a theorist, but a fact of life.” (As if one could sensibly distinguish between the two.)

Update: Scientific American has been nice enough to publicly post a feature by Martin Gutzwiller on quantum chaos. Thanks due to George Musser.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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