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Interacting Atomic Interferometry for Rotation Sensing Approaching the Heisenberg Limit

A ring-shaped arrangement of atoms, coaxed into a swirling quantum superposition by lasers, could probe gravity's strength down to very small scales. (Credit: E. Edwards/JQI)

Only in quantum physics can traffic be standing still and moving at the same time.

A new paper from scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland suggests that intentionally creating a traffic jam out of a ring of several thousand ultracold atoms could enable precise measurements of motion. If implemented with the right experimental setup, the atoms could provide a measurement of gravity, possibly even at distances as short as 10 micrometers—about a tenth of a human hair's width. 

While the authors stress that a great deal of work remains to show that such a measurement would be attainable, the potential payoff would be a clarification of gravity's pull at very short length scales.

In addition to potentially answering deep fundamental questions, these atom rings may have practical applications, too. They could lead to motion sensors far more precise than previously possible, or serve as switches for quantum computers, with 0 represented by atomic gridlock and 1 by moving atom traffic.

The ring would take advantage of one of quantum mechanics' counterintuitive behaviors to help scientists actually measure what its atoms pick up about gravity. The lasers could stir the atoms into what is called a "superposition," meaning, in effect, they would be both circulating about the ring and simultaneously at a standstill. This superposition of flow and gridlock would help maintain the relationships among the ring's atoms for a few crucial milliseconds after removing their laser constraints, enough time to measure their properties before they scatter.

Researchers
S. Ragole and J.M. Taylor
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