Cavity Quantum Electrodynamics; April 1993; Scientific American Magazine; by Serge Haroche and Jean-Michel Raimond; 8 Page(s)
Fleeting, spontaneous transitions are ubiquitous in the quantum world. Once they are under way, they seem as uncontrollable and as irreversible as the explosion of ¿reworks. Excited atoms, for example, discharge their excess energy in the form of photons that escape to infinity at the speed of light. Yet during the past decade, this inevitability has begun to yield. Atomic physicists have created devices that can slow spontaneous transitions, halt them, accelerate them or even reverse them entirely.
Recent advances in the fabrication of small superconducting cavities and other microscopic structures as well as novel techniques for laser manipulation of atoms make such feats possible. By placing an atom in a small box with reflecting walls that constrain the wavelength of any photons it emits or absorbs--and thus the changes in state that it may undergo--investigators can cause single atoms to emit photons ahead of schedule, stay in an excited state indefinitely or block the passage of a laser beam. With further refinement of this technology, cavity quantum electrodynamic (QED) phenomena may find use in the generation and precise measurement of electromagnetic fields consisting of only a handful of photons. Cavity QED processes engender an intimate correlation between the states of the atom and those of the field, and so their study provides new insights into quantum aspects of the interaction between light and matter.