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Light’s polarization states measured directly

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Ashley N. Rice, [email protected]

There may be a way around Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle, a law of the quantum world that says precise measurement is impossible. The solution could be a method developed at the universities of Rochester and Ottawa that directly measures the polarization states of light for the first time. The direct measurement technique, developed in 2011 by scientists at Canada’s National Research Council, determines the wave function – a way of determining the state of a quantum system. Such direct measurement had long been believed to be impossible on the basis that you could never fully understand a quantum system through direct observation.

Now, the investigators have discovered that it is possible to measure fundamental related variables, known as “conjugate” variables, of a quantum particle or state directly. The discovery is applicable to qubits, the building blocks of quantum information theory, as polarization states of light can be used to encode information.

“The ability to perform direct measurement of the quantum wave function has important future implications for quantum information science,” said Dr. Robert Boyd, who is Canada Excellence Research Chair in Quantum Nonlinear Optics at the University of Ottawa and professor of optics and physics at the University of Rochester. “Ongoing work in our group involves applying this technique to other systems; for example measuring the form of a ‘mixed’ (as opposed to a pure) quantum state.”

A technique called quantum tomography previously allowed researchers to measure the information contained in these quantum states, but only indirectly. Quantum tomography requires intensive postprocessing of the data, a time-consuming process not required in the direct measurement technique. Thus, in principle, the new technique provides the same information as quantum tomography but in significantly less time.


“The key to characterizing any quantum system is gathering information about conjugate variables,” said co-author Jonathan Leach, now a lecturer at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. “The reason it wasn’t thought possible to measure two conjugate variables directly was because measuring one would destroy the wave function before the other one could be measured.”

The new method relies on a trick that “weakly” measures the first property of a system in such a way that it is not disturbed, making it possible to obtain information about the second party through “strong” measurement.

Boyd and colleagues did this by passing polarized light through two crystals of differing thicknesses: the first, a very thin crystal that “weakly” measured the horizontal and vertical polarization state; the second, a much thicker crystal that “strongly” measured the diagonal and anti-diagonal polarization state.

The position and momentum of the light were used as indicators of the polarization state. To couple the polarization to the spatial degree of freedom, the investigators used birefringent crystals: When light goes through such a crystal, there is a spatial separation introduced for different polarizations. Repeating the process several times allows accurate statistics to be built up, giving a full, direct characterization of the polarization states of the light.

The work, supported by the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program and the DARPA InPho program, was published in Nature Photonics (doi: 10.1038/nphoton.2013.24).

Published: May 2013
Glossary
polarization
Polarization refers to the orientation of oscillations in a transverse wave, such as light waves, radio waves, or other electromagnetic waves. In simpler terms, it describes the direction in which the electric field vector of a wave vibrates. Understanding polarization is important in various fields, including optics, telecommunications, and physics. Key points about polarization: Transverse waves: Polarization is a concept associated with transverse waves, where the oscillations occur...
AmericasCanadaCanada Excellence Research Chairdirect measurementHeisenberg’s Uncertainty PrincipleJonathan LeachNew YorkOpticspolarizationquantum informationquantum tomographyqubitsResearch & TechnologyRobert Boydstrong measurementTech PulseUniversity of OttawaUniversity of Rochesterweak measurement

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