Quantum Mischief Rewrites the Laws of Cause and Effect

11.03.2021

Spurred on by quantum experiments that scramble the ordering of causes and their effects, some physicists are figuring out how to abandon causality altogether.

Alice and Bob, the stars of so many thought experiments, are cooking dinner when mishaps ensue. Alice accidentally drops a plate; the sound startles Bob, who burns himself on the stove and cries out. In another version of events, Bob burns himself and cries out, causing Alice to drop a plate.

Over the last decade, quantum physicists have been exploring the implications of a strange realization: In principle, both versions of the story can happen at once. That is, events can occur in an indefinite causal order, where both “A causes B” and “B causes A” are simultaneously true.

“It sounds outrageous,” admitted Časlav Brukner, a physicist at the University of Vienna.

The possibility follows from the quantum phenomenon known as superposition, where particles maintain all possible realities simultaneously until the moment they’re measured. In labs in Austria, China, Australia and elsewhere, physicists observe indefinite causal order by putting a particle of light (called a photon) in a superposition of two states. They then subject one branch of the superposition to process A followed by process B, and subject the other branch to B followed by A. In this procedure, known as the quantum switch, A’s outcome influences what happens in B, and vice versa; the photon experiences both causal orders simultaneously.

Over the last five years, a growing community of quantum physicists has been implementing the quantum switch in tabletop experiments and exploring the advantages that indefinite causal order offers for quantum computing and communication. It’s “really something that could be useful in everyday life,” said Giulia Rubino, a researcher at the University of Bristol who led the first experimental demonstration of the quantum switch in 2017.

But the practical uses of the phenomenon only make the deep implications more acute.

Physicists have long sensed that the usual picture of events unfolding as a sequence of causes and effects doesn’t capture the fundamental nature of things. They say this causal perspective probably has to go if we’re ever to figure out the quantum origin of gravity, space and time. But until recently, there weren’t many ideas about how post-causal physics might work. “Many people think that causality is so basic in our understanding of the world that if we weaken this notion we would not be able to make coherent, meaningful theories,” said Brukner, who is one of the leaders in the study of indefinite causality.

That’s changing as physicists contemplate the new quantum switch experiments, as well as related thought experiments in which Alice and Bob face causal indefiniteness created by the quantum nature of gravity. Accounting for these scenarios has forced researchers to develop new mathematical formalisms and ways of thinking. With the emerging frameworks, “we can make predictions without having well-defined causality,” Brukner said.

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Quanta Magazine

Natalie Wolchover

The mystery of indefinite causal order leaves the order of events uncertain. Cody Muir for Quanta Magazine