Quantum gravitational effects have widely been believed inaccessible by experiment because enormously high energy densities are required to make them comparably large as other quantum effects. This argument however neglects that quantum effects of gravity can also become relevant for massive objects in quantum superpositions. Once we are able to measure the gravitational pull of an object that is in a superposition of two different places, we can determine whether the gravitational field is in a quantum superposition as well.This neat idea has two problematic aspects. First, since gravity is very weak, measuring gravitational fields of small objects is extremely difficult. And second, bringing massive objects into quantum states is hard because the states rapidly decohere due to interaction with the environment. However, technological advances on both aspects of the problem have been stunning during the last decade.
In two previous posts we discussed some examples of massive quantum oscillators that can create location superpositions of objects as heavy as a nano-gram. The objects under consideration here are typically small disks made of silicon that are bombarded with laser light while trapped between two mirrors. A nano-gram might not sound much, but compared to the masses of elementary particles that’s enormous.
Meanwhile, progress on the other aspect of the problem - measuring tiny gravitational fields – has also been remarkable. Currently, the smallest mass whose gravitational pull has been measured is about 90g. But a recent proposal by the group of Markus Aspelmeyer in Vienna lays out a method for measuring the gravitational force of masses as small as a few milli-gram.
A micromechanical proof-of-principle experiment for measuring the gravitational force of milligram masses
Jonas Schmöle, Mathias Dragosits, Hans Hepach, Markus Aspelmeyer
Their proposal relies on a relatively new field of technology that employs micro-mechanical devices, which basically means you make your whole measurement apparatus as small as you can, piling single atoms on atoms. This trend, which has itself become possible only by the nanotechnology required to to design these devices, allows measurements of unprecedented precision.
The smallest force that has so far been measured with nano-devices is around a zepto-Newton (zepto is 10-21). That’s not yet the world-record in tiny-force measurements, which is currently held by a group in Berkely and lies at about a yocto-Newton (that’s 10-24). But the huge benefit of the nano-devices is that you can get them close to the probe, whereas the experiment holding the record relies on precisely tracking the motion of a cloud of atoms in a trap. Not only doesn’t the cloud-tracking mean that it’s difficult to scale up the mass without ruining precision. The necessity to trap the particles also means that it’s difficult to get the source of the force-field close to the probe. The use of micro-mechanical devices in contrast does not have the same limitations and thus lends itself better to the task of measuring the gravitational force exerted by quantum systems.
The Aspelmeyer group sketches their experiment as shown in the figure below
The blue circles are the masses whose gravitational interaction one wants to measure, with the source mass to the right and the test-mass to the left. The test-mass is attached to the micro-mechanical oscillator, whereas the source-mass is driven by another oscillator close by the systems’ resonance frequency. The gravitational pull between the two masses transfers the oscillation of the source-mass to the test-mass, where it can be picked up by the detector.
In their paper, the experimentalists argue that it should be possible by this method to measure the gravitational force of a source mass not heavier than a few milli-grams. And that’s the conservative estimate. With better detector efficiency even that limit could be improved on.
There are still a few orders of magnitude between a milli-gram and a nano-gram, which is the current maximum mass for which quantum superpositions have been achieved. But in typical estimates for quantum gravitational effects you end up at least 30 orders of magnitude away from measurement precision. Now we are talking about five orders of magnitude – and that in a field with rapid technological developments for which there is no fundamental limit in sight.
What is most remarkable about this development is that this proposal relies on technology that until a few years ago literally nobody in quantum gravity ever talked about. It’s not even that the technological development has been faster than anticipated, it’s a possibility that plainly wasn’t on the radar. Now there is a Nobel Prize waiting here, for the first experimental measurement of quantum gravitational effects.
And as the Prize comes within reach, competition will speed up the pace. So stay tuned, I am sure we will hear more about this soon.