At the foundation of quantum mechanics is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Simply put, the principle states that there is a fundamental limit to what one can know about a quantum system. For example, the more precisely one knows a particle’s position, the less one can know about its momentum, and vice versa. The limit is expressed as a simple equation that is straightforward to prove mathematically.

Heisenberg sometimes explained the uncertainty principle as a problem of making measurements. His most well-known thought experiment involved photographing an electron. To take the picture, a scientist might bounce a light particle off the electron’s surface. That would reveal its position, but it would also impart energy to the electron, causing it to move. Learning about the electron’s position would create uncertainty in its velocity; and the act of measurement would produce the uncertainty needed to satisfy the principle.

Physics students are still taught this measurement-disturbance version of the uncertainty principle in introductory classes, but it turns out that it’s not always true. Aephraim Steinberg of the University of Toronto in Canada and his team have performed measurements on photons (particles of light) and showed that the act of measuring can introduce less uncertainty than is required by Heisenberg’s principle. The total uncertainty of what can be known about the photon’s properties, however, remains above Heisenberg’s limit. [full article]