You're an atom; I'll bet you think this is about you

29th October 2015
Nat Bowers


Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have found that an artificial atom positioned in front of a mirror will survive up to ten times longer than normal.

If we add energy to an atom, we say that the atom is excited, and it normally takes some time before the atom loses energy and returns to its original state. This time is called the lifetime of the atom. The researchers have placed an artificial atom at a specific distance in front of a mirror. By changing the distance to the mirror, they can get the atom to live longer, up to ten times as long as if the mirror had not been there.

The artificial atom is actually a superconducting electrical circuit that the researchers make behave as an atom. Just like a natural atom, you can charge it with energy, excite the atom, which it then emits in the form of light particles. In this case, the light has a much lower frequency than ordinary light and in reality are microwaves.

Per Delsing, Professor of Physics and leader of the research team, commented: “We have demonstrated how we can control the lifetime of an atom in a very simple way. We can vary the lifetime of the atom by changing the distance between the atom and the mirror. If we place the atom at a certain distance from the mirror the atom’s lifetime is extended by such a length that we are not even able to observe the atom. Consequently, we can hide the atom in front of a mirror."

The experiment is a collaboration between experimental and theoretical physicists at Chalmers University of Technology, the latter have developed the theory for how the atom’s lifetime varies depending on the distance to the mirror.

“The reason why the atom 'dies', that is returns to its original ground state, is that it sees the very small variations in the electromagnetic field which must exist due to quantum theory, known as vacuum fluctuations,” adds Göran Johansson, Professor of Theoretical and Applied Quantum Physics and leader of the theory group.

When the atom is placed in front of the mirror it interacts with its mirror image, which changes the amount of vacuum fluctuations to which the atom is exposed. The system that the Chalmers researchers succeeded in building is particularly well suited for measuring the vacuum fluctuations, which otherwise is a very difficult thing to measure.

The team's findings are published in the Nature Physics journal: Probing the quantum vacuum with an artificial atom in front of a mirror.

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