February 1, 2019
Electrons inside an atom whip around the nucleus like satellites around the Earth, occupying orbits determined by quantum physics. Light can boost an electron to a different, more energetic orbit, but that high doesn’t last forever. At some point the excited electron will relax back to its original orbit, causing the atom to spontaneously emit light that scientists call fluorescence. Scientists can play tricks with an atom’s surroundings to tweak the relaxation time for high-flying electrons, which then dictates the rate of fluorescence. In a new study, researchers at the Joint Quantum Institute observed that a tiny thread of glass, called an optical nanofiber, had a significant impact on how fast a rubidium atom releases light. The research, which appeared as an Editor’s Suggestion in Physical Review A, showed that the fluorescence depended on the shape of light used to excite the atoms when they were near the nanofiber.