Tuesday, June 09, 2009

This week in cond-mat

Two papers appeared on the arxiv in the last couple of days concerning the very hot topic of quantum-limited measurement. I'm no expert in the area, but here's a quick summary of the idea.... Anyone who's read anything about quantum mechanics is familiar with the popular "gamma-ray microscope" thought experiment meant to highlight the Heisenberg uncertainty relation. In lay terms, trying to use light to determine the location of a particle with arbitrarily high precision requires, in a simple thought experiment, light of a correspondingly short wavelength. Shorter wavelength = higher energy photons = higher momentum photons = big momentum transfer to the particle. Thus, the more precisely you localize the particle, the less you know about its momentum. This is an adequate handwave for the popular press, but the real situation can be more subtle. Still, in the general problem of quantum measurement, one is often concerned about "back action" - the fact that coupling your system to a detector (thus enabling you to make some kind of measurement of an observable) generally perturbs the equations of motion of the system itself. It turns out, under certain very special circumstances, it is possible to design a measurement and pick observables such that the effect of back action is essentially confined to some variable that you don't care about. The net result in that case is that you can measure your particular observable to higher precision than a simplified uncertainty argument would suggest is possible.

Two groups, those of Keith Schwab at Cal Tech (paper here) and Konrad Lehnert at Boulder/JILA (paper here), have managed to do this type of measurement, looking at the position of a nanoscale mechanical resonator. In both cases, they are able to couple the resonator to a microwave LC resonator in such a way that they can measure the mechanical displacement better than the standard quantum limit. These measurements are very technologically impressive, and they open up the path toward really exciting possibilities, including entanglement of different nanomechanical systems, clever cooling schemes, and true quantum mechanics measurements.

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