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February 7, 2023

The Evolution of Reality
How natural selection could explain one of the biggest conundrums of quantum mechanics: The emergence of objective reality.
by Anil Ananthaswamy
FQXi Awardees: Wojciech Zurek
November 10, 2009
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"You need to be amazed and surprised before
you get somewhere interesting."

Wojciech Zurek
In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in which he laid forth his theory of natural selection, revolutionizing our understanding of biology in the process. At first glance, Wojciech Zurek shares little in common with Darwin. Born almost a century and a half later, he is a physicist who is far more interested in the spread of quantum information than the dispersal of biological traits. But Zurek is now channeling the biologist to explain one of the deepest mysteries of physics: just how the quantum realm transitions into the classical world we see around us. It’s all down to the survival of the fittest.

Zurek, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is tackling fundamental issues that standard interpretations of quantum mechanics have struggled with: Does the objective world disappear when nobody is looking? How does it even become “objective” in the first place? Why don’t we experience quantum fuzziness in everyday life? And what triggers the transition between the quantum and classical? They are questions that he claims his new theory of quantum Darwinism can answer.

Growing up in Bielsko-Biala in Poland in the 1960s, Zurek was no ordinary teenager. Even before he finished high school, he cajoled his father into buying him a set of The Feynman Lectures in Physics, which had just been translated into Polish. "The first few volumes had the air of amazement and surprise and astonishment at how the universe works, and at how much we can understand about how it works," says Zurek. It was the beginning of an obsession.

That obsession received a major boost when Zurek moved to Austin, Texas, to do his Ph.D. There he worked with the venerable John Wheeler—a fundamental contributor to the fields of quantum mechanics and general relativity, among others. "The time when I realized I could really contribute, rather than just stand by and be amazed, was when I was with Johnny," says Zurek.

The late John Wheeler (center) inspired (left to right)
physicists Bill Wooters, Kip Thorne, Wojciech Zurek
& Bill Unruh
That transformation had as much to do with Wheeler’s approach to problem-solving, as it did with his formidable achievements in quantum theory. Making mistakes in search for truth was understood to be an integral part of research. "Not being afraid of saying ’I don’t know,’ and, in fact, using that admission of ignorance as a springboard to make progress was something I hadn’t realized, at least not with that clarity," says Zurek. "You really need to be amazed and surprised and puzzled before you get somewhere really interesting."

Above all, Zurek and Wheeler were puzzled by one of the central questions that haunts quantum mechanics: How does an objective reality emerge from the quantum world? One of the key distinctions between a quantum object and a classical object is that the former can exist in a superposition of different states. For instance, an electron can be in two places at once. But that superposition only lasts as long as we don’t look at the object, or measure it. Once we do, it snaps into one state.

Emerging Reality

How does such a quantum object become classical, choosing just one definitive state? The question has troubled physicists since the dawn of quantum mechanics, with wavefunction collapse and parallel universes being invoked as alternative explanations (see "Copenhagen vs. Many Worlds: And the Winner Is…"). But neither has been able to explain the actual mechanism through which classical reality emerges, or how and why the transformation is triggered by observations.

Zurek has a great talent
for raising important
points and putting them
front and center.
- Frank Wilhelm
It may seem like an esoteric problem, but the growing interest in quantum computing has lent it immediacy. Superposition lies at the heart of the promise of quantum computing. The idea is that because quantum systems, such as electrons, can exist in a superposition of states, they can encode a superposition of possibilities, and, therefore, carry out a superposition of computations simultaneously. In a classical computer, the absence or presence of an electron can encode either a ’0’or a ’1’; in a quantum computer, superposition could represent both simultaneously. This means that, in theory, quantum computers can perform exponentially greater numbers of calculations using the same number of electrons as a classical computer.

For this to happen in practice, a quantum computer must maintain its superposition of states long enough to perform significant calculations. But that’s easier said than done; it’s clear that the world we perceive doesn’t exist in a superposition of quantum states. While those building quantum computers fret about not destroying the superposition, theorists wonder why it gets destroyed in the first place.

This is where Zurek comes in. He has focused his efforts on the notion of decoherence, first mooted by Dieter Zeh of the University of Heidelberg in 1970. According to decoherence theory, a quantum system can only remain in a superposition of states (that is, remain coherent) as long as it is isolated from its environment. As soon as the environment—which includes everything from air molecules to photons—enters the frame, coherence flies out of the window.

Decoherence argues that the reason we don’t see macroscopic objects in a superposition of quantum states is because they cannot be isolated from their environment. It doesn’t take a conscious observer carrying out a measurement to snap an object from a quantum to a classical state, just a nudge from its surroundings.

Survival of the Fittest

But that still doesn’t explain which quantum states become, in effect, classical. It’s here that Zurek has made his most important contribution, in papers published from 1981 onwards. His argument centers on the role of the environment, which doesn’t just passively disturb the quantum object; instead, it actively determines which classical reality will be selected: "The environment is monitoring the system. It is not just perturbing the system, it is sucking out information."


Credit: Lin-Wang Wang,
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
The key point is that not all quantum superposition states are created equal—some are more apt to survive in one particular environment than others. The act of information transfer from the quantum system to the environment serves two purposes. First, it destroys fragile quantum states that aren’t so well suited to their surroundings. This is einselectionenvironment induced super-selection—the process that selects these preferred states and spreads the information aboutthem throughout the environment.

But this does not yet explain the emergence of an objective reality. After all, these einselected quantum states could still be perturbed by a direct measurement carried out by an observer.

Zurek’s current research centers on the idea that the environment also becomes a "witness" to the state of the system. What this means is that multiple copies of the states that survive interaction with their surroundings are disseminated throughout the environment—as though the environment is taking photographs of the preferred states and passing them on. This survival-of-the-fittest-states and their proliferation throughout the environment has been dubbed quantum Darwinism.

Quantum Darwinism ensures that different observers will see the same objective reality because they are most likely to intercept a copy of the same stable state. "The main idea of quantum Darwinism is that we almost never do any direct measurement on anything," says Zurek. Instead, the environment acts as a witness, or as a communication channel. "It is like a big advertising billboard, which floats multiple copies of the information about our universe all over the place."

"Zurek has a great talent for raising important points and putting things—which other people may have been observing on the side in their calculations—front and center," says Frank Wilhelm of the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo, Canada. Wilhelm admires Zurek’s work for provoking a debate on the foundations of quantum mechanics.

Bill Unruh, a quantum theorist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver also commends Zurek for wrestling with issues that most ignore. "It is a problem that most people leave on the side of their table, to think about while they are sitting in the bath and not to take too seriously," says Unruh. "He’s been one of the very few people in the world who has been willing to take it seriously."

It’s like a billboard
which floats multiple copies
of the information about
our universe all over
the place.
- Wojciech Zurek
However, Unruh adds that it is too early to say whether Zurek’s ideas can provide the final answer to the quantum conundrum.

If Zurek wants to win everyone over to his way of thinking, he must address one big question: Can we verify quantum Darwinism experimentally? Zurek has been awarded a $75,000 grant from the Foundational Questions Institute to de velop models that make concrete predictions that experimenters can test. He’s got good reason to be optimistic as computer simulations are already showing signs of quantum Darwinism at play (see "Natural Selection in Action").

Zurek’s next step is to make additional testable predictions. For example, what fraction of the environment is needed to extract a certain amount of information about the quantum system? This requires extending his work to include impure environments. So far, theoretical models have involved idealized pure environments, or "clean slates," on which only the information about the system will be "written." But in realistic cases, the slate is not clean—the environment could already be partially occupied with information about other entities.

Of course, there is always a danger that a lifetime of work can be undermined by experiments; Zurek has been working on theories of quantum information for close to 30 years. Many of his theories have been confirmed by experiment, but quantum Darwinism is still new and awaiting tests. Zurek, however, is unperturbed. After all, standing up to experimental testing is essential for any physics theory that wants to be taken seriously. In a world full of alternative ideas, only the fittest will survive.

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