The experiment starts by cooling a dilute cloud of hundreds of thousands of atoms to temperatures close to absolute zero, approximately -273 degrees Celsius.
At these temperatures the atoms form a so-called Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), a quantum phase in which all particles occupy the same quantum state. Now an optical lattice is superimposed on the BEC: This is a kind of artificial crystal made of light with periodically arranged bright and dark areas, generated by the superposition of standing laser light waves from different directions. This lattice can be viewed as an ‘egg carton’ on which the atoms are distributed. Whereas in a real egg carton each site is either occupied by a single egg or no egg, the number of atoms sitting at each lattice site is determined by the laws of quantum mechanics: Depending on the lattice height (i.e. the intensity of the laser beam) the single lattice sites can be occupied by zero, one, two, three and more atoms at the same time.
The use of those ‘atom number superposition states’ is the key to the novel measurement principle developed by the researchers. The dynamics of an atom number state can be compared to the dynamics of a swinging pendulum. As pendulums of different lengths are characterized by different oscillation frequencies, the same applies to the states of different atom numbers. “However, these frequencies are modified by inter-atomic collisions. If only pairwise interactions between atoms were present, the pendulums representing the individual atom number states would swing synchronously and their oscillation frequencies would be exact multiples of the pendulum frequency for two interacting atoms”, Sebastian Will, graduate student at the experiment, explains.
Using a tricky experimental set-up the physicists were able to track the evolution of the different superimposed oscillations over time. Periodically interference patterns became visible and disappeared, again and again (see figure below). From their intensity and periodicity the physicists found unambiguous evidence that the frequencies are actually not simple multiples of the two-body case. “This really caught us by surprise. We became aware that a more complex mechanism must be at work”, Sebastian Will recalls. “Due to their ultralow temperature the atoms occupy the energetically lowest possible quantum state at each lattice site. Nevertheless, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle allows them to make – so to speak - a virtual detour via energetically higher lying quantum states during their collision. Practically, this mechanism gives rise to exotic collisions, which involve three, four or more atoms at the same time.”
The results reported in this work provide an improved understanding of interactions between microscopic particles. This may not only be of fundamental scientific interest, but find a direct application in the context of ultracold atoms in optical lattices. Owing to exceptional experimental controllability, ultracold atoms in optical lattices can form a ‘quantum simulator’ to model condensed matter systems. Such a quantum simulator is expected to help understand the physics behind superconductivity or quantum magnetism. Furthermore, as each lattice site represents a miniature laboratory for the generation of exotic quantum states, experimental set-ups using optical lattices may turn out to be the most sensitive probes for observing atomic collisions.