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Scientists evade the Heisenberg uncertainty principle

ICFO-The Institute of Photonic Sciences


IMAGE: This is Ferran Martin Ciurana and Dr. Giorgio Colangelo working on the experimental setup. view more

Credit: ICFO

State-of-the-art sensors, such as MRIs and atomic clocks, are capable of making measurements with exquisite precision. MRI is used to image tissues deep within the human body and tells us whether we might suffer from an illness, while atomic clocks are extremely precise timekeepers used for GPS, internet synchronization, and long baseline interferometry in radio-astronomy. One might think these two instruments have nothing in common, but they do: both technologies are based on precise measurement the spin of the atom, the gyroscope-like motion of the electrons and the nucleus. In MRI, for example, the pointing angle of the spin gives information about where in the body the atom is located, while the amount of spin (the amplitude) is used to distinguish different kinds of tissue. Combining these two pieces of information, the MRI can make a 3D map of the tissues in the body.

The sensitivity of this kind of measurement was long thought to be limited by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which states that accurately measuring one property of an atom puts a limit to the precision of measurement you can obtain on another property. For example, if we measure an electron's position with high precision, Heisenberg's principle limits the accuracy in the measurement of its momentum. Since most atomic instruments measure two properties (spin amplitude and angle), the principle seems to say that the readings will always contain some quantum uncertainty. This long-standing expectation has now been disproven, however, by ICFO researchers Dr. Giorgio Colangelo, Ferran Martin Ciurana, Lorena C. Bianchet and Dr. Robert J. Sewell, led by ICREA Prof. at ICFO Morgan W. Mitchell. In their article "Simultaneous tracking of spin angle and amplitude beyond classical limits", published this week in Nature, they describe how a properly designed instrument can almost completely avoid quantum uncertainty.

The trick is to realize that the spin has not one but two pointing angles, one for the north-east-south-west direction, and the other for the elevation above the horizon. The ICFO team showed how to put nearly all of the uncertainty into the angle that is not measured by the instrument. In this way they still obeyed Heisenberg's requirement for uncertainty, but hid the uncertainty where it can do no harm. As a result, they were able to obtain an angle-amplitude measurement of unprecedented precision, unbothered by quantum uncertainty.

Prof. Mitchell uses a solid analogy to state that "To scientists, the uncertainty principle is very frustrating - we'd like to know everything, but Heisenberg says we can't. In this case, though, we found a way to know everything that matters to us. It's like the Rolling Stones song: you can't always get what you want / but if you try sometimes you just might find / you get what you need."

In their study, the ICFO team cooled down a cloud of atoms to a few micro-degrees Kelvin, applied a magnetic field to produce spin motion as in MRI, and illuminated the cloud with a laser to measure the orientation of the atomic spins. They observed that both the spin angle and uncertainty can be continuously monitored with a sensitivity beyond the previously expected limits, although still obeying the Heisenberg principle.

As for the challenges faced during the experiment, Colangelo comments that "in the first place, we had to develop a theoretical model to see if what we wanted to do was really possible. Then, not all the technologies we used for the experiment existed when we started: among them, we had to design and develop a particular detector that was fast enough and with very low noise. We also had to improve a lot the way we were "preparing" the atoms and find a way to efficiently use all the dynamic range we had in the detector. It was a battle against the Dark Side of Quantum, but we won it!"

The results of the study are of paramount importance since this new technique shows that it is possible to obtain even more accurate measurements of atomic spins, opening a new path to the development of far more sensitive instruments and enabling the detection of signals, such as gravitational waves or brain activity, with unprecedented accuracy.


About ICFO

ICFO -- The Institute of Photonic Sciences, member of The Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, is a research center located in a specially designed, 14.000 m2-building situated in the Mediterranean Technology Park in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. It currently hosts 400 people, including research group leaders, post-doctoral researchers, PhD students, research engineers, and staff. ICFOnians are organized in 27 research groups working in 60 state-of-the-art research laboratories, equipped with the latest experimental facilities and supported by a range of cutting-edge facilities for nanofabrication, characterization, imaging and engineering.

The Severo Ochoa distinction awarded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, as well as 14 ICREA Professorships, 25 European Research Council grants and 6 Fundació Cellex Barcelona Nest Fellowships, demonstrate the centre's dedication to research excellence, as does the institute's consistent appearance in top worldwide positions in international rankings. From an industrial standpoint, ICFO participates actively in the European Technological Platform Photonics21 and is also very proactive in fostering entrepreneurial activities and spin-off creation. The center participates in incubator activities and seeks to attract venture capital investment. ICFO hosts an active Corporate Liaison Program that aims at creating collaborations and links between industry and ICFO researchers. To date, ICFO has created 5 successful start-up companies.

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