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Measuring the time a tunnelling atom spends in the barrier

Ramos, R.Spierings, D.Racicot, I.Steinberg, A.M. Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control
Institute for Optical Sciences,
Department of Physics,
University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Canadian Institute For Advanced Research,
MaRS Centre,
Ontario, Canada
2019 Physics

Tunnelling is one of the most paradigmatic and evocative phenomena of quantum physics, underlying processes such as photosynthesis and nuclear fusion, as well as devices ranging from SQUID magnetometers to superconducting qubits for quantum computers. The question of how long a particle takes to tunnel, however, has remained controversial since the first attempts to calculate it, which relied on the group delay. It is now well understood that this delay (the arrival time of the transmitted wave packet peak at the far side of the barrier) can be smaller than the barrier thickness divided by the speed of light, without violating causality.

There have been a number of experiments confirming this, and even a recent one claiming that tunnelling may take no time at all. There have also been efforts to identify another timescale, which would better describe how long a given particle spends in the barrier region. Here we present a direct measurement of such a time, studying Bose-condensed $^{87}$Rb atoms tunnelling through a 1.3-${\mu}$m thick optical barrier. By localizing a pseudo-magnetic field inside the barrier, we use the spin precession of the atoms as a clock to measure the time it takes them to cross the classically forbidden region.

We find a traversal time of 0.62(7) ms and study its dependence on incident energy. In addition to finally shedding light on the fundamental question of the tunnelling time, this experiment lays the groundwork for addressing deep foundational questions about history in quantum mechanics: for instance, what can we learn about where a particle was at earlier times by observing where it is now?

The article was published in: arXiv preprint arXiv:1907.13523.

Full article

This work was supported (in part) by the Fetzer Franklin Fund of the John E. Fetzer Memorial Trust.