Surprising communication between atoms could improve quantum computing

A dark room with pink-hued lasers reflecting off of mirrors
A dark room with pink-hued lasers reflecting off of mirrors
In their experiments, UW–Madison physicists led by Deniz Yavuz immobilized a group of rubidium atoms by laser-cooling them to just slightly above absolute zero. Then, they shined a laser at rubidium’s excitation wavelength to energize electrons. PHOTO COURTESY OF YAVUZ LAB

A group of University of Wisconsin­–Madison physicists has identified conditions under which relatively distant atoms communicate with each other in ways that had previously only been seen in atoms closer together — a development that could have applications to quantum computing.

The physicists’ findings, published Oct. 14 in the journal Physical Review A, open up new prospects for generating entangled atoms, the term given to atoms that share information at large distances, which are important for quantum communications and the development of quantum computers.

“Building a quantum computer is very tough, so one approach is that you build smaller modules that can talk to each other,” says Deniz Yavuz, a UW–Madison physics professor and senior author of the study. “This effect we’re seeing could be used to increase the communication between these modules.”

profile photo of Deniz Yavuz
Deniz Yavuz

The scenario at hand depends on the interplay between light and the electrons that orbit atoms. An electron that has been hit with a photon of light can be excited to a higher energy state. But electrons loathe excess energy, so they quickly shed it by emitting a photon in a process known as decay. The photons atoms release have less energy than the ones that boosted the electron up — the same phenomenon that causes some chemicals to fluoresce, or some jellyfish to have a green-glowing ring.

“Now, the problem gets very interesting if you have more than one atom,” says Yavuz. “The presence of other atoms modifies the decay of each atom; they talk to each other.”

Read the full  UW–Madison news story

Chuanhong (Vincent) Liu named to Fall 2020 cohort of the Quantum Information Science and Engineering Network (QISE-NET)

profile photo of Vincent Liu

Graduate student Chuanhong (Vincent) Liu (McDermott Group) has had his project awarded funding through QISE-NET, the Quantum Information Science and Engineering Network. Run through the University of Chicago, QISE-NET is open to any student pursuing an advanced degree in any field of quantum science. Liu and other students in his cohort earn up to three years of support, including funding, mentoring and training at annual workshops. All awardees are paired with a mentoring QISE company or national lab, at which they will complete part of their projects. Liu describes his project, below. Cecilia Vollbrecht, a grad student in Chemistry, also earned this honor. Both Liu and Volbrecht are students in the Wisconsin Quantum Institute.

The Single Flux Quantum (SFQ) digital logic family has been proposed as a scalable approach for the control of next-generation multiqubit arrays. With NIST’s strong track record in the field of SFQ digital logic and the expertise of McDermott’s lab in the superconducting qubit area, we expect to achieve high fidelity SFQ-based qubit control. The successful completion of this research program will represent a major step forward in the development of a scalable quantum-classical interface, a critical component of a fully error-corrected fault-tolerant quantum computer.

New study provides understanding of astrophysical plasma dynamics

plasma from a sun-like star in the upper left corner is coming out like a string that swirls like a whirlpool around a dot in the center of the image

Stars, solar systems, and even entire galaxies form when astrophysical plasma — the flowing, molten mix of ions and electrons that makes up 99% of the universe — orbits around a dense object and attaches, or accretes, on to it. Physicists have developed models to explain the dynamics of this process, but in the absence of sending probes to developing stars, the experimental confirmation has been hard to come by.

In a study published in Physical Review Letters September 25, University of Wisconsin–Madison physicists recreated an astrophysical plasma in the lab, allowing them to investigate the plasma dynamics that explain the accretion disk formation. They found that electrons, not the momentum-carrying ions, dominate the magnetic field dynamics in less dense plasmas, a broad category that includes nearly all laboratory astrophysical plasma experiments.

plasma from a sun-like star in the upper left corner is coming out like a string that swirls like a whirlpool around a dot in the center of the image
An artist’s conception of the accretion disk | Credit: P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Like water swirling around and down an open drain, plasma in an accretion disk spins faster nearer the heavy object in the center than further away. As the plasma falls inward, it loses angular momentum. A basic physics principle says that angular momentum needs to be conserved, so the faster rotating plasma must be transferring its momentum away from the center.

“This is an outstanding problem in astrophysics — how does that angular momentum get transported in an accretion disk?” says Ken Flanagan, a postdoctoral researcher with the department of physics at UW–Madison and lead author of the study.

The simplest explanation is friction, but it was ruled out when the corresponding accretion times, in some cases, would be longer than the age of the universe. A model developed by theoretical physicists posits that turbulence, or the chaotic changes in plasma flow speeds, can explain the phenomenon on a more realistic time scale.

“So ad hoc, astrophysicists say, ‘Okay, there’s this much turbulence and that explains it,’” Flanagan says. “Which is good, but you need to call in the plasma physicists to piece together where that turbulence comes from.”

Flanagan and colleagues, including UW­–Madison physics professor Cary Forest, wanted to build off an idea that the turbulence was coming from an intrinsic property of some plasmas known as magnetorotational instability. This instability is seen in plasmas that are flowing fastest near the center and are in the presence of a weak magnetic field.

“And it’s lucky because there are weak magnetic fields all around the universe, and the flow profile in the accretion disks is set by the gravitational force,” Flanagan says. “So, we thought this plasma instability could be responsible for turbulence, and it explains how accretion disks work.”

To investigate if this intrinsic plasma instability explained the observation, the researchers turned to the Big Red Ball (BRB), a three-meter-wide hollow sphere with a 3000 magnets at its inner surface and various probes inside. They activate a plasma by ionizing gas inside the BRB, then applying a current to drive its movement.

a 3-meter-diameter sphere, painted red and with tons of probes all around it
The Big Red Ball is one of several pieces of scientific equipment being used to study the fundamental properties of plasma in order to better understand the universe, where the hot, ionized gas is abundant. | Photo by Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)

Because they had previously been encountering problems in driving very fast flows, they tried a new technique to drive the flow across the entire volume of plasma, as opposed to just the edges. Fortuitously, the BRB had magnetic field probes from a previous experiment still attached, and when they activated the plasma under these conditions, they found that this new flow setup amplified the magnetic field strength with a peak at the center nearly twenty times the baseline strength.

“We didn’t expect to see that at all, because usually in plasma physics the simplest model is to think of plasmas as one fluid with the heavier ions dominating momentum,” Flanagan says. “The results suggested that the plasma is in the Hall regime, which means the electrons and their motion are entirely responsible for the plasma moving around magnetic fields.”

If they were correct in assuming it was the Hall effect that was driving magnetic field amplification, the equations governing magnetic fields and electric currents say that if you drive the current in the opposite direction, the strength of the magnetic field would be canceled out. So, they switched the current and measured the magnetic field strength: it was zero, supporting the Hall regime explanation.

While the results are not directly applicable to the plasma accretion disks around, say, a very dense black hole, they do directly impact the earth-bound experiments that attempt to recreate and study them.

“Nearly all plasma astrophysical experiments operate in the Hall regime, and so this sort of large qualitative effect is something you’re going to have to pay attention to when you make these sorts of flows in laboratory astrophysical plasmas,” Flanagan says. “In that sense, this work has a pretty broad impact for lots of different research areas.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (#1518115) and by the U.S. Department of Energy (#DE-SC0018266).

Physics grad students share hands-on physics, art lessons with local fifth graders

picture of a computer screen showing a Zoom meeting where most of the individual boxes are where the students' kaleidoscopes are being held up to the camera
the 4 kits sent home with the students are laid out and opened up, revealing contents like worksheets, laser pointers, mirrors, and lenses
The at-home physics kits featured lessons on light, such as how it functions as both a particle and a wave, and how light changes as it passes through a prism. PHOTO: AEDAN GARDILL

UW–Madison physics grad student Aedan Gardill has been illustrating physics concepts with art for years, such as through his Instagram account, where he shares ink drawings. Earlier this year, he applied for a grant from the Madison Arts Commission to create hidden portraits of women in the physical sciences that could only be revealed by using polarized lenses. He also planned to visit local schools to explain the concept behind his art and help students make their own images based on his technique.

By the time Gardill learned he had been awarded the grant, the pandemic was in full force, and his plans had to change. While he could still present his portraits at the Wisconsin Science Festival, school visits were no longer in the cards.

“With the realization this summer that school was going to most likely be online in the fall, I had to rethink how I was going to use the funding from the grant,” Gardill explains. “And that has morphed into providing at-home, hands-on learning experiences that we’ll lead virtually.”

Hear more from Aedan and a Henderson Elementary School teacher and student he worked with, by reading the full story

Funding for Gardill’s work is provided by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Optical Society of America, the International Society for Optics and Photonics, and the UW­–Madison Department of Physics, with special thanks to Arts + Literature Laboratory. UW–Madison physics graduate student volunteers include Abby Bishop, Praful Gagrani, Jimena Gonzalez, Ben Harpt, Preston Huft, Brent Mode, Bryan Rubio Perez, Susan Sorensen, and Jessie Thwaites.

Vernon Barger earns 2021 APS Sakurai Prize

profile photo of Vernon Barger
profile photo of Vernon Barger
Vernon Barger

University of Wisconsin­–Madison Physics professor Vernon Barger has won the J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics, the American Physical Society announced October 7.

The J.J. Sakurai Prize is considered ­­one of the most prestigious annual prizes in the field of theoretical high energy physics. Barger, who joined the UW­–Madison faculty in 1965, is a world leader in theoretical particle physics where theory meets experiment. He is one of the founders of collider phenomenology as it is practiced today.

“This prize belongs to the hundreds of students, postdocs, faculty and visiting colleagues who entered the portal of UW–Madison to discover the quarks, leptons and bosons of particle physics,” Barger says. “Only at UW–Madison could this research at the interface of theory and experiment so thrive.”

The techniques that Barger helped develop have been crucial in establishing the experimental foundations of the Standard Model of particle physics and in guiding the search for signals of new physics. His contributions have played a key role in many important milestones in particle physics, including the discovery of the W boson in 1985, the top quark in 1995, and the Higgs boson discovery in 2012.

UW–Madison physics professor Lisa Everett and University of Hawaii professor Xerxes Tata, both phenomenologists, co-nominated Barger for the prize.

“We are thrilled that Vernon Barger has been awarded the 2021 J.J. Sakurai Prize, for which we nominated him for his seminal accomplishments and leadership record in collider physics phenomenology over five decades in the field,” Everett says. “The techniques he has pioneered have and continue to be of pivotal importance for elucidating physics signals at particle colliders, and these contributions are only part of a very long and distinguished research career in theoretical particle physics. He is highly deserving of this honor.”

UW–Madison chemistry professor Martin Zanni also won an APS award, the Earle K. Plyler Prize for Molecular Spectroscopy & Dynamics. Read the UW–Madison news piece about both Barger and Zanni’s awards here.