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Delicate Systems Observed with Quantum Physics

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BARCELONA, Spain, Dec. 18, 2012 — Groups of photons prepared in certain quantum states can noninvasively probe ultrasensitive objects such as individual atoms or living cells, overcoming the standard quantum limit for the first time.

The results from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) have defeated the limit imposed by quantum mechanics that requires all photons to be polarized in one direction and also in the opposite direction; that is, in two different states at once. This is similar to a thought experiment described by Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 in which he imagined a hypothetical cat in a “superposition of states” — simultaneously dead and alive.

Scientists at ICFO have prepared groups of photons in certain quantum states to noninvasively probe ultrasensitive objects such as individual atoms or living cells, overcoming the standard quantum limit for the first time. Courtesy of ICFO.

In the experiment, the researchers prepared pairs of photons in a “Schrödinger cat” state and sent them through a cloud of rubidium atoms, measuring their polarization on the way out. In this way, they deduced the number of atoms in the cloud and the magnetic field of their surroundings. At the same time, they were able to assess the damage, i.e., the number of photons absorbed by the cloud.

“Atoms of rubidium are a good model because, on one hand, they share the same characteristics as the cells in relation to the information obtained and damage caused and, on the other hand, we have very precise knowledge of their characteristics,” said Morgan Mitchell of ICFO and a professor at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats.

The Schrödinger cat results showed that photons organized in certain quantum states can provide more information, giving a clearer picture of ultrasensitive objects while causing less damage. The team overcame the standard quantum limit, which quantifies the maximum amount of information obtainable with any traditional probing.

“Overcoming this limit provides rigorous proof of the effectiveness of quantum physics for measuring delicate objects,” Mitchell said.

Details of the research were published in Nature Photonics (doi: 10.1038/nphoton.2012.300). 

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Dec 2012
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
quantum mechanics
The science of all complex elements of atomic and molecular spectra, and the interaction of radiation and matter.
Erwin SchrödingerEuropeICFOimagingindividual atomsInstitució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis AvançatsInstitute of Photonic Sciencesliving cellsMorgan Mitchellnoninvasive explorationopticsphotonicsphotonsquantum mechanicsquantum physicsquantum statesResearch & Technologyrubidium atomsSchrödinger’s catstandard quantum limitultrasensitive objects

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