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Quantum Leaps Are Real – And Now, We Can Control Them

For over a century, physicists having been rowing about the true nature of a quantum leap. There’s now an answer, and in true quantum form, everybody was a little bit correct.

The phrase “quantum leap” has taken a bit of battering over the past few decades – for many people it will call to mind a cliché for massive change, or the sci-fi TV programme starring Scott Bakula. It actually describes one of the core tenets of quantum physics: that atoms have discrete energy levels, and electrons within an atom can jump from one energy level to the next, but cannot be observed between those specific levels.

Titans of physics including Niels Bohr, who introduced the idea in 1913, Erwin Schrödinger, and Albert Einstein clashed over the specifics of these leaps – also known as quantum jumps –  particularly about whether they were instantaneous and whether their timing was random.

Now, Zlatko Minev at Yale University and his colleagues have settled the debate. “If we zoom in to a very fine scale the jump is neither instantaneous nor as fully random as we thought it was,” Minev says.

The researchers achieved this by building a superconducting electrical circuit with quantum behaviour that makes it an analogue to atom with three energy levels: the ground state, which is the atom’s default state, a “bright” state connected to the ground state, and a “dark” state into which the atom can jump.

They fired a beam of microwaves at the artificial atom to inject energy into the system. Generally, the atom was rapidly bouncing between the ground state and the bright state, emitting a photon every time it jumped from bright to ground. But if the atom absorbed a higher-energy photon from the beam, it would leap into the dark state. The dark state was more stable than the bright state, so the atom would stay there for longer without emitting any photons.

From these signals, the researchers were able to tell when a quantum jump had started by looking for a flash of light from the bright state followed by a lull as the atom leapt into the dark state. Minev compares it to predicting a volcano eruption. “It’s a random phenomenon, no one can predict when the next volcano eruption will occur, however before the next eruption does occur there are certain signals in the ground that we can detect and use as a warning,” he says.

The lull in light from the atom is equivalent to those seismic warning signals. On longer timescales, it’s impossible to predict when the next jump will occur, as Bohr thought – but on shorter timescales of just a few microseconds, they are.

“The fact that such a quantum jump was seen in a superconducting circuit rather than an atom is indicative of the fact that we can control this superconducting circuit in ways that we cannot control natural atoms,” says William Oliver at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We should someday be able to do the same thing with real atoms, he says.

This control allowed the team to do something that Bohr and his contemporaries would have deemed impossible – controlling a quantum leap.

If, just after the jump had started, the researchers hit the atom with an electrical pulse, they could intercept it and send the atom back to the ground state – something which would not have been possible if quantum leaps were truly instantaneous and random. Instead, they found that the leaps took the same path between the two energy levels every time, so it was easy to predict how to bounce them back.

This shows that, as Schrödinger insisted, quantum leaps are not instantaneous – they actually take about four microseconds. “In a sense the jumps aren’t jumps,” says Minev. “If you look at these finer features, you can do things that maybe you thought you couldn’t do because of these little windows of predictability.”

This may eventually be useful to correct errors in quantum computing, Minev says. An unexpected quantum jump could mark a mistake in calculations, and this method might allow researchers to spot the start of the jump and account for the error, or even reverse it mid-leap. “This is a very important scientific result, and its relevance to quantum computers of the future is going to depend on what quantum computers of the future look like,” says Oliver.

By Leah Crane Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1287-z (Source)


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