Physics Breakthrough: Quantum Cat State Finally Captured on Camera

You can be excited and unexcited about it, at the same time!

9. 26. 16 by Dom Galeon
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Image by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Demonstrating Quantum Effects

new study by a team of scientists from Stanford University has captured the “cat state” in action (or inaction), in a highly detailed stop-motion movie showing the inner workings of simple iodine molecules. The study has been accepted for publication by Physical Review Letters.

The phenomena captures lasts for just 30 millionths of a billionth of a second. The Stanford scientists used optical green X-ray laser light to zap a two-atom iodine molecule. This sudden burst of energy split the molecule into two, one was in an excited state and the other was not, but both existing simultaneously — the “cat state.” Although true for any molecule when zapped with lasers, this is the first time this phenomenon was clearly seen and recorded.

The “cat state” molecules were exposed to a second burst of X-ray light, which caused the excited and non-excited version of the molecule to scatter and then recombine. The X-ray image created looked like hologram of concentric rings.

Out of the Box

Refining the images and compiling snapshots of the iodine molecules at different states, in various points in time, the scientists were able to make a movie that captured all the possible behaviors of an iodine molecule when exposed to X-rays.

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Phil Bucksbaum of Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and co-author of the study explains: “We see it start to vibrate, with the two atoms veering toward and away from each other like they were joined by a spring. At the same time, we see the bond between the atoms break, and the atoms fly off into the void. Simultaneously, we see them still connected, but handing out for awhile at some distance from each other before moving back in.” And it all took just a trillionth of a second.

So, with Schrödinger’s cat now outside the box, the potential to better understand molecular activity or quantum effects in living systems improves. Further knowledge of these effects could lead to learning more about how our sense of smell works, if quantum behavior is a major part of photosynthesis, as well as what role it plays in birds’ migration.


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