Millikelvin cooling of an optically trapped microsphere in vacuum
The apparent conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics remains one of the unresolved mysteries of the physical world. According to recent theories, this conflict results in gravity-induced quantum state reduction of "Schr\"odinger cats", quantum superpositions of macroscopic observables. In recent years, great progress has been made in cooling micromechanical resonators towards their quantum mechanical ground state. This work is an important step towards the creation of Schr\"odinger cats in the laboratory, and the study of their destruction by decoherence. A direct test of the gravity-induced state reduction scenario may therefore be within reach. However, a recent analysis shows that for all systems reported to date, quantum superpositions are destroyed by environmental decoherence long before gravitational state reduction takes effect. Here we report optical trapping of glass microspheres in vacuum with high oscillation frequencies, and cooling of the center-of-mass motion from room temperature to a minimum temperature of 1.5 mK. This new system eliminates the physical contact inherent to clamped cantilevers, and can allow ground-state cooling from room temperature. After cooling, the optical trap can be switched off, allowing a microsphere to undergo free-fall in vacuum. During free-fall, light scattering and other sources of environmental decoherence are absent, so this system is ideal for studying gravitational state reduction. A cooled optically trapped object in vacuum can also be used to search for non-Newtonian gravity forces at small scales, measure the impact of a single air molecule, and even produce Schr\"odinger cats of living organisms.