When atoms interact, they act as a whole rather than individual structures, resulting in symmetrical responses to inputs. When properly understood and controlled, it may appear helpful in building light sources, building sensors that can take exact measurements, and understanding the scattering of quantum computers.
But can you tell when the atoms in a group are harmonized? In a new work in Nature Communications, Columbia physicist Ana Asenjo-Garcia and her postdoc Stuart Masson demonstrated how a so-called explosive device could demonstrate the interdependent behavior between various atoms, solving a problem for centuries. Quantum optics.
Lighting a laser to an atom adds energy, placing it in what is known as a “happy” state. Eventually, it will rot back to its basic energy level, releasing more power in the form of light particles called photons. In the 1950s, physicist Robert Dicke showed that the light beats from a single happy atom, emitting photons at random, would rapidly decline. The group’s heartbeat will be a “superpower,” The energy rises at first because the atoms emit more power in a shorter, brighter light.
The problem? In Dicke’s mind, atoms are all contained in one place — an imaginary entity that cannot possibly exist.
For decades, researchers have debated whether atoms separated by distinct arrangements, such as lines or grids, could indicate brightness or if any distance could quickly remove this external sign of composite behavior. According to statistics by Masson and Asenjo-Garcia, power is always present. “No matter how you arrange your atoms or how many there are, there will always be a big bang if they are close enough,” Masson said.
Their approach overcomes a major problem in quantum physics: as the system grows, it becomes more difficult to perform calculations with it. According to the work of Asenjo-Garcia and Masson, predicting superradiance all comes in just two photons. If the first photon released from the group does not speed up the second release, the explosion will not occur—a factor determining the distance between atoms, which varies in the order they are arranged. For example, the same 40×40 atomic members will show the explosion when they are within 0.8 of each wavelength.
According to Masson, that distance can be achieved in advanced testing settings. Although it is not yet complete with details about the strength or duration of the explosion if the system is more significant than 16 atoms (those exact calculations are much more complex, even on Columbia laptops), the simple prediction framework for Masson and the advanced Asenjo-Garcia show whether a given list of tests will produce more light, which is a sign that atoms are working together.