Squeezing light to detect more gravitational waves

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

This article appeared in the fall print issue of Popular Science, but I missed that this article had also been published online.

Something called ‘squeezed light’ is about to give us a closer look at cosmic goldmines

Gravitational wave detection is going through an even tighter squeeze.

For Popular Science:

In 2015, scientists caught evidence of a ­cosmic throwdown that took place 1.3 billion light-​years away. They spied this binary black-hole collision by capturing gravitational waves—­ripples in spacetime created when massive objects ­interact—​for the first time. But now physicists want to see even farther. Doing so could help them accurately measure waves cast off by colliding neutron stars, impacts that might be the source of many Earthly elements, including gold. For that, they need the most sensitive gravitational-wave detectors ever.

The devices that nab waves all rely on the same mechanism. The U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its European counterpart, Virgo, fire lasers down two mile-plus-long arms with mirrors at their ends. Passing waves wiggle the mirrors less than the width of an atom, and scientists measure the ripples based on when photons in the laser light bounce off them and come back. Ordinarily, photons exit the lasers at random intervals, so the signals are fuzzy.

[Read the rest at Popular Science]

O, what entangled photons we weave!

(OK, it doesn’t scan. So sue me.) Quantum entanglement is a challenging topic, and one which has tripped up a lot of people (including many physicists!) over the decades. In brief, entanglement involves two (or more) particles constituting a single system: measurement on one particle instantly determines the result of similar measurements on the second, no matter how far they are separated in space. While no information is transferred in this process, it’s still at odds with our everyday experience with how the world should work. I updated my earlier explanation of entanglement, which hopefully can help clear up some of the confusion.

Recent work either assumes entanglement is real and probes some of the more interesting implications, or tests some mathematical relations known as Bell’s inequalities. The latter are aimed at quantifying the difference between the predictions of quantum physics and certain alternative models. In that spirit, a group of researchers proposed using light from quasars to randomize the measurement apparatus in entanglement experiments, to eliminate the tiny possibility of a weird loophole in quantum theory.

If a detector has some correlation with the hidden variables of the particles being measured, then the two detectors don’t act independently. That’s true even if only a very tiny amount of information is exchanged less than a millisecond before measurements take place. The interaction would create the illusion that the particles are entangled in a quantum sense, when in fact they are influencing the detectors, which in turn dictate what measurements are being taken. This is known as the “detector settings independence” loophole—or somewhat facetiously as the “free will” loophole, since it implies the human experimenter has little or no choice over the detector settings. [Read more…]

Final note: this is probably the first paper I’ve covered that involves both my undergraduate research focus (quantum measurement) and my PhD work (cosmology), albeit in a much different way than both.

Cartoon showing X-ray laser probing of Rydberg states in argon atoms. [Credit: Adam Kirrander]

Cartoon showing X-ray laser probing of Rydberg states in argon atoms. [Credit: Adam Kirrander]

I really love how many experiments are beginning to probe to the limits of quantum measurement. I wrote about a pair of cool studies in December that revealed the quantum wavefunction — the mathematical structure governing the behavior of particles. Today, my latest article in Ars Technica examined a proposed experiment using X-ray lasers to study the dynamics of electrons in argon (and other inert gases) in both space and time.

Rydberg atoms have the electrons in their outer layers excited until the electrons are only weakly bound to the nucleus, making the atoms physically very large. The increased size allows light to scatter off the outermost electrons without much interference from the nucleus or from the inner core of electrons. In other words, it’s a way to isolate the electron dynamics from other messy phenomena. Noble gases like argon are particularly useful for this, since they are largely non-reactive chemically and relatively easy to model theoretically. [Read more….]

Studying electron motion in space and time

Often in physics, we can separate the object from the environment and the experimental apparatus from what’s being measured, but that separation is approximate. In quantum systems, those distinctions break down, to the point where the environment “measures” the system, in ways we don’t fully understand even after nearly a century of study. (A lot of nonsense has been written about the subject, too, which is a rant for another day.) A new experiment may help mitigate some of the problems of system-environment interaction, through understanding how photons and atoms couple—and when they do not.

One remaining frontier is comprehension of how systems gradually lose coherence via interactions with their environment, which prevents their usefulness in quantum computing. A new set of experiments by Yinnon Glickman, Shlomi Kotler, Nitzan Akerman, and Roee Ozeri revealed part of the mechanism by which environment disrupts quantum systems: photons. They found that photons that interacted with a quantum system can end up correlated with the system’s state, the hallmark of entanglement. By careful preparation of the atom’s state, it may be possible to reduce the loss of quantum information to the environment, and thus extend the life of these systems. [Read more…]

Disentangling environmental influences in photon-atom interactions

The shell game is a classic con, a rigged contest meant to separate a person from their money. The quantum shell game described in a new paper is meant to elucidate the role of measurement in the outcome of an experiment, separating the quantum and classical aspects clearly. This was accomplished using measurement of the spin of a nitrogen atom in a diamond, and rules out the naive idea that the act of measurement is responsible for quantum weirdness.

Another approach to probing this distinction involves strong measurements that have no classical counterpart. Richard E. George and colleagues demonstrated incompatibility of the naive classical view in measurements on a modified diamond. As they described in a new PNAS paper, the equivalent classical system is similar to the old con known as the shell game: three shells, with a pea under one of them. Here, the act of “measuring” the pea’s location has no effect on the system. But the researchers’ quantum system excludes this classical behavior well beyond reasonable doubt or random chance. [Read more….]

Playing a quantum shell game to win

Winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics: Serge Haroche (left) and David J. Wineland (right, who may be the same person as Sam Elliott).

The the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics were announced this morning: Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland. Their work involves trapping and measuring the quantum states of photons and ions, respectively:

A major challenge is measuring the state of a quantum system without modifying it. On the macroscopic scale, we can generally measure mass, size, and the like without worrying about destroying anything, but quantum mechanics is more like medicine. The most reliable way to determine if something is wrong with a person is to cut right in, hack things apart, and extract the bits that are causing problems—but for obvious reasons, that’s a bad idea under most circumstances if you want the patient to live. Just as the treatments that kill cancer cells often can kill healthy cells as well, measurement of a quantum state can alter or even destroy the system under study. [Read more….]

Trapping particles leads to 2012 Nobel Prize in physics