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    One of nature’s key constants is much larger in a quantum material

    A crucial number that rules the universe goes big in a strange quantum material.

    The fine-structure constant is about 10 times its normal value in a type of material called quantum spin ice, physicists calculate in the Sept. 10 Physical Review Letters. The new calculation hints that quantum spin ice could give a glimpse at physics within an alternate universe where the constant is much larger.

    With an influence that permeates physics and chemistry, the fine-structure constant sets the strength of interactions between electrically charged particles. Its value, about 1/137, consternates physicists because they can’t explain why it has that value, even though it is necessary for the complex chemistry that is the basis of life (SN: 11/2/16).

    If the fine-structure constant throughout the cosmos were as large as the one in quantum spin ices, “the periodic table would only have 10 elements,” says theoretical physicist Christopher Laumann of Boston University. “And it probably would be hard to make people; there wouldn’t be enough richness to chemistry.”

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    Quantum spin ices are a class of substances in which particles can’t agree. The materials are made up of particles with spin, a quantum version of angular momentum, which makes them magnetic. In a normal material, particles would come to a consensus below a certain temperature, with the magnetic poles lining up in either the same direction or in alternating directions. But in quantum spin ices, the particles are arranged in such a way that the magnetic poles, or equivalently the spins, can’t agree even at a temperature of absolute zero (SN: 2/13/11).

    The impasse occurs because of the materials’ geometry: The particles are located at the corners of an array of pyramids that are connected at the corners. Conflicts between multiple sets of neighbors mean that the closest these particles can get to harmony is arranging themselves so that two spins face out from each pyramid, and two face in.

    In quantum spin ices, particles (black dots) are located at the corners of an array of pyramids (red). Normally, the spins of the particles (green arrows) arrange so that two are pointing into the pyramid and two out. If that rule is broken, as illustrated, quasiparticles called spinons (orange and blue) form.S.D. Pace et al/PRL 2021

    This uneasy truce can give rise to disturbances that behave like particles within the material, or quasiparticles (SN: 10/3/14). Flip particles’ spins around and you can get what are called spinons, quasiparticles that can move through the material and interact with other spinons in a manner akin to electrons and other charged particles found in the world outside the material. The material re-creates the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the piece of particles physics’ standard model that hashes out how electrically charged particles do their thing. But the specifics, including the fine-structure constant, don’t necessarily match those in the wider universe.

    So Laumann and colleagues set out to calculate the fine-structure constant in quantum spin ices for the first time. The team pegged the number at about 1/10, instead of 1/137. What’s more, the researchers found that they could change the value of the fine-structure constant by tweaking the properties of the theoretical material. That could help scientists study the effects of altering the fine-structure constant — a test that’s well out of reach in our own universe, where the fine-structure constant is fixed.

    Unfortunately, scientists haven’t yet found a material that definitively qualifies as quantum spin ice. But one much-studied prospect is a group of minerals called pyrochlores, which have magnetic ions, or electrically charged atoms, arranged in the appropriate pyramid configuration. Scientists might also be able to study the materials using a quantum computer or another quantum device designed to simulate quantum spin ices (SN: 6/29/17).

    If scientists succeed in creating quantum spin ice, the materials could reveal how quantum electrodynamics and the standard model would work in a universe with a much larger fine-structure constant. “That would be the hope,” says condensed matter theorist Shivaji Sondhi of the University of Oxford, who was not involved with the research. “It’s interesting to be able to make a fake standard model … and ask what would happen.” More

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    Physicists used LIGO’s mirrors to approach a quantum limit

    Quantum mechanics usually applies to very small objects: atoms, electrons and the like. But physicists have now brought the equivalent of a 10-kilogram object to the edge of the quantum realm.

    Scientists with the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, reduced vibrations in a combination of the facility’s mirrors to nearly the lowest level allowed by quantum mechanics, they report in the June 18 Science.

    The researchers quelled differences between the jiggling of LIGO’s four 40-kilogram mirrors, putting them in near-perfect sync. When the mirrors are combined in this way, they behave effectively like a single, 10-kilogram object.

    LIGO is designed to measure gravitational waves, using laser light that bounces between sets of mirrors in the detector’s two long arms (SN: 2/11/16). But physicist Vivishek Sudhir of MIT and colleagues instead used the laser light to monitor the mirrors’ movements to extreme precision and apply electric fields to resist the motion. “It’s almost like a noise-canceling headphone,” says Sudhir. But instead of measuring nearby sounds and canceling out that noise, the technique cancels out motion.

    The researchers reduced the mirrors’ relative motions to about 10.8 phonons, or quantum units of vibration, close to the zero-phonon quantum limit.

    The study’s purpose is not to better understand gravitational waves, but to get closer to revealing secrets of quantum mechanics. Scientists are still trying to understand why large objects don’t typically follow the laws of quantum mechanics. Such objects lose their quantum properties, or decohere. Studying quantum states of more massive objects could help scientists pin down how decoherence happens.

    Previous studies have observed much smaller objects in quantum states. In 2020, physicist Markus Aspelmeyer of the University of Vienna and colleagues brought vibrations of a nanoparticle to the quantum limit (SN: 1/30/20). LIGO’s mirrors are “a fantastic system to study decoherence effects on super-massive objects in the quantum regime,” says Aspelmeyer. More

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    ‘Designer molecules’ could create tailor-made quantum devices

    Quantum bits made from “designer molecules” are coming into fashion. By carefully tailoring the composition of molecules, researchers are creating chemical systems suited to a variety of quantum tasks.
    “The ability to control molecules … makes them just a beautiful and wonderful system to work with,” said Danna Freedman, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “Molecules are the best.” Freedman described her research February 8 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held online.
    Quantum bits, or qubits, are analogous to the bits found in conventional computers. But rather than existing in a state of either 0 or 1, as standard bits do, qubits can possess both values simultaneously, enabling new types of calculations impossible for conventional computers.
    Besides their potential use in quantum computers, molecules can also serve as quantum sensors, devices that can make extremely sensitive measurements, such as sussing out minuscule electromagnetic forces (SN: 3/23/18).

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    In Freedman and colleagues’ qubits, a single chromium ion, an electrically charged atom, sits at the center of the molecule. The qubit’s value is represented by that chromium ion’s electronic spin, a measure of the angular momentum of its electrons. Additional groups of atoms are attached to the chromium; by swapping out some of the atoms in those groups, the researchers can change the qubit’s properties to alter how it functions.
    Recently, Freedman and colleagues crafted molecules to fit one particular need: molecular qubits that respond to light. Lasers can set the values of the qubits and help read out the results of calculations, the researchers reported in the Dec. 11 Science. Another possibility might be to create molecules that are biocompatible, Freedman says, so they can be used for sensing conditions inside living tissue.
    Molecules have another special appeal: All of a given type are exactly the same. Many types of qubits are made from bits of metal or other material deposited on a surface, resulting in slight differences between qubits on an atomic level. But using chemical techniques to build up molecules atom by atom means the qubits are identical, making for better-performing devices. “That’s something really powerful about the bottom-up approach that chemistry affords,” said Freedman.
    Scientists are already using individual atoms and ions in quantum devices (SN: 6/29/17), but molecules are more complicated to work with, thanks to their multiple constituents. As a result, molecules are a relatively new quantum resource, Caltech physicist Nick Hutzler said at the meeting. “People don’t even really know what you can do with [molecules] yet.… But people are discovering new things every day.” More

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    Drones could help create a quantum internet

    The quantum internet may be coming to you via drone.
    Scientists have now used drones to transmit particles of light, or photons, that share the quantum linkage called entanglement. The photons were sent to two locations a kilometer apart, researchers from Nanjing University in China report in a study to appear in Physical Review Letters.
    Entangled quantum particles can retain their interconnected properties even when separated by long distances. Such counterintuitive behavior can be harnessed to allow new types of communication. Eventually, scientists aim to build a global quantum internet that relies on transmitting quantum particles to enable ultrasecure communications by using the particles to create secret codes to encrypt messages. A quantum internet could also allow distant quantum computers to work together, or perform experiments that test the limits of quantum physics.
    Quantum networks made with fiber-optic cables are already beginning to be used (SN: 9/28/20). And a quantum satellite can transmit photons across China (SN: 6/15/17). Drones could serve as another technology for such networks, with the advantages of being easily movable as well as relatively quick and cheap to deploy.
    The researchers used two drones to transmit the photons. One drone created pairs of entangled particles, sending one particle to a station on the ground while relaying the other to the second drone. That machine then transmitted the particle it received to a second ground station a kilometer away from the first. In the future, fleets of drones could work together to send entangled particles to recipients in a variety of locations. More

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    Galileo’s famous gravity experiment holds up, even with individual atoms

    According to legend, Galileo dropped weights off of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, showing that gravity causes objects of different masses to fall with the same acceleration. In recent years, researchers have taken to replicating this test in a way that the Italian scientist probably never envisioned — by dropping atoms.
    A new study describes the most sensitive atom-drop test so far and shows that Galileo’s gravity experiment still holds up — even for individual atoms. Two different types of atoms had the same acceleration within about a part per trillion, or 0.0000000001 percent, physicists report in a paper in press in Physical Review Letters.
    Compared with a previous atom-drop test, the new research is a thousand times as sensitive. “It represents a leap forward,” says physicist Guglielmo Tino of the University of Florence, who was not involved with the new study.
    Researchers compared rubidium atoms of two different isotopes, atoms that contain different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei. The team launched clouds of these atoms about 8.6 meters high in a tube under vacuum. As the atoms rose and fell, both varieties accelerated at essentially the same rate, the researchers found.

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    In confirming Galileo’s gravity experiment yet again, the result upholds the equivalence principle, a foundation of Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity. That principle states that an object’s inertial mass, which determines how much it accelerates when force is applied, is equivalent to its gravitational mass, which determines how strong a gravitational force it feels. The upshot: An object’s acceleration under gravity doesn’t depend on its mass or composition.
    So far, the equivalence principle has withstood all tests. But atoms, which are subject to the strange laws of quantum mechanics, could reveal its weak points. “When you do the test with atoms … you’re testing the equivalence principle and stressing it in new ways,” says physicist Mark Kasevich of Stanford University.
    Kasevich and colleagues studied the tiny particles using atom interferometry, which takes advantage of quantum mechanics to make extremely precise measurements. During the atoms’ flight, the scientists put the atoms in a state called a quantum superposition, in which particles don’t have one definite location. Instead, each atom existed in a superposition of two locations, separated by up to seven centimeters. When the atoms’ two locations were brought back together, the atoms interfered with themselves in a way that precisely revealed their relative acceleration.
    Many scientists think that the equivalence principle will eventually falter. “We have reasonable expectations that our current theories … are not the end of the story,” says physicist Magdalena Zych of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who was not involved with the research. That’s because quantum mechanics — the branch of physics that describes the counterintuitive physics of the very small — doesn’t mesh well with general relativity, leading scientists on a hunt for a theory of quantum gravity that could unite these ideas. Many scientists suspect that the new theory will violate the equivalence principle by an amount too small to have been detected with tests performed thus far.
    But physicists hope to improve such atom-based tests in the future, for example by performing them in space, where objects can free-fall for extended periods of time. An equivalence principle test in space has already been performed with metal cylinders, but not yet with atoms (SN: 12/4/17).
    So there’s still a chance to prove Galileo wrong. More

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    A measurement of positronium’s energy levels confounds scientists

    Positronium is positively puzzling.
    A new measurement of the exotic “atom” — consisting of an electron and its antiparticle, a positron — disagrees with theoretical calculations, scientists report in the Aug. 14 Physical Review Letters. And physicists are at a loss to explain it.
    A flaw in either the calculations or the experiment seems unlikely, researchers say. And new phenomena, such as undiscovered particles, also don’t provide an easy answer, adds theoretical physicist Jesús Pérez Ríos of the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin. “Right now, the best I can tell you is, we don’t know,” says Pérez Ríos, who was not involved with the new research.
    Positronium is composed of an electron, with a negative charge, circling in orbit with a positron, with a positive charge — making what’s effectively an atom without a nucleus (SN: 9/12/07). With just two particles and free from the complexities of a nucleus, positronium is appealingly simple. Its simplicity means it can be used to precisely test the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which explains how electrically charged particles interact.

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    A team of physicists from University College London measured the separation between two specific energy levels of positronium, what’s known as its fine structure. The researchers formed positronium by colliding a beam of positrons with a target, where they met up with electrons. After manipulating the positronium atoms with a laser to put them in the appropriate energy level, the team hit them with microwave radiation to induce some of them to jump to another energy level.
    The researchers pinpointed the frequency of radiation needed to make the atoms take the leap, which is equivalent to finding the size of the gap between the energy levels. While the frequency predicted from calculations was about 18,498 megahertz, the researchers measured about 18,501 megahertz, a difference of about 0.02 percent. Given that the estimated experimental error was only about 0.003 percent, that’s a wide gap.
    The team searched for experimental issues that could explain the result, but came up empty. Additional experiments are now needed to help investigate the mismatch, says physicist Akira Ishida of the University of Tokyo, who was not involved with the study. “If there is still significant discrepancy after further precise measurements, the situation becomes much more exciting.”
    The theoretical prediction also seems solid. In quantum electrodynamics, making predictions involves calculating to a certain level of precision, leaving out terms that are less significant and more difficult to calculate. Those additional terms are expected to be too small to account for the discrepancy. But, “it’s conceivable that you could be surprised,” says theoretical physicist Greg Adkins of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., also not involved with the research.
    If the experiments and the theoretical calculations check out, the discrepancy might be due to a new particle, but that explanation also seems unlikely. A new particle’s effects probably would have shown up in earlier experiments. For example, says Pérez Ríos, positronium’s energy levels could be affected by a hypothetical axion-like particle. That’s a lightweight particle that has the potential to explain dark matter, an invisible type of matter thought to permeate the universe. But if that type of particle was causing this mismatch, researchers would also have seen its effects in measurements of the magnetic properties of the electron and its heavier cousin, the muon.
    That leaves scientists still searching for an answer, says physicist David Cassidy, a coauthor of the study. “It’s going to be something surprising. I just don’t know what.­” More