Ions are charged particles that interact strongly via the Coulomb force, which is an attraction/repulsion that decreases as particles separate. When a handful of positively charged ions are thrown together, they repel each other, and, for an oblong ion trap, form a linear crystal. (Images of ion traps can be found in media galleries.) Each ion has two internal energy states that make up a qubit. Laser beams can manipulate the Coulomb force to create tunable, long range magnetic-like interactions, where each ion qubit represents a tiny magnet.
Imagine that invisible springs connect the ions together. Vibrations occurring on one side of the crystal affect the entire crystal. This is called collective motion and is harnessed to generate a force that depends on how a magnet is oriented (which state the qubit is in). This state-dependent force by simultaneously applying multiple laser beams, whose colors (frequencies) are specially chosen with respect to the internal vibrations of the ion crystal. The amount of influence each magnet has on the rest of the chain primarily depends on the choice of laser frequencies. The crystal geometry has little to do with the interactions. In fact, for some laser configurations the ions that are farthest apart in space interact most strongly. Researchers can ‘at will’ modify how the different collective modes contribute to magnetic order by merely changing the laser colors and/or the ion separation.