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Devoret and colleagues wanted to watch a single artificial atom jump between its lowest-energy (ground) state and an energetically excited state. But they couldn’t monitor that transition directly, because making a measurement on a quantum system destroys the coherence of the wave function — its smooth wavelike behavior  — on which quantum behavior depends. To watch the quantum jump, the researchers had to retain this coherence. Otherwise they’d “collapse” the wave function, which would place the artificial atom in one state or the other. This is the problem famously exemplified by Schrödinger’s cat, which is allegedly placed in a coherent quantum “superposition” of live and dead states but becomes only one or the other when observed.

To get around this problem, Devoret and colleagues employ a clever trick involving a second excited state. The system can reach this second state from the ground state by absorbing a photon of a different energy. The researchers probe the system in a way that only ever tells them whether the system is in this second “bright” state, so named because it’s the one that can be seen. The state to and from which the researchers are actually looking for quantum jumps is, meanwhile, the “dark” state — because it remains hidden from direct view.

The researchers placed the superconducting circuit in an optical cavity (a chamber in which photons of the right wavelength can bounce around) so that, if the system is in the bright state, the way that light scatters in the cavity changes. Every time the bright state decays by emission of a photon, the detector gives off a signal akin to a Geiger counter’s “click.”

The key here, said Oliver, is that the measurement provides information about the state of the system without interrogating that state directly. In effect, it asks whether the system is in, or is not in, the ground and dark states collectively. That ambiguity is crucial for maintaining quantum coherence during a jump between these two states. In this respect, said Oliver, the scheme that the Yale team has used is closely related to those employed for error correction in quantum computers. There, too, it’s necessarily to get information about quantum bits without destroying the coherence on which the quantum computation relies. Again, this is done by not looking directly at the quantum bit in question but probing an auxiliary state coupled to it.

The strategy reveals that quantum measurement is not about the physical perturbation induced by the probe but about what you know (and what you leave unknown) as a result. “Absence of an event can bring as much information as its presence,” said Devoret. He compares it to the Sherlock Holmes story in which the detective infers a vital clue from the “curious incident” in which a dog did not do anything in the night. Borrowing from a different (but often confused) dog-related Holmes story, Devoret calls it “Baskerville’s Hound meets Schrödinger’s Cat.”

To Catch a Jump

The Yale team saw a series of clicks from the detector, each signifying a decay of the bright state, arriving typically every few microseconds. This stream of clicks was interrupted approximately every few hundred microseconds, apparently at random, by a hiatus in which there were no clicks. Then after a period of typically 100 microseconds or so, the clicks resumed. During that silent time, the system had presumably undergone a transition to the dark state, since that’s the only thing that can prevent flipping back and forth between the ground and bright states.

So here in these switches from “click” to “no-click” states are the individual quantum jumps — just like those seen in the earlier experiments on trapped atoms and the like. However, in this case Devoret and colleagues could see something new.

Before each jump to the dark state, there would typically be a short spell where the clicks seemed suspended: a pause that acted as a harbinger of the impending jump. “As soon as the length of a no-click period significantly exceeds the typical time between two clicks, you have a pretty good warning that the jump is about to occur,” said Devoret.

That warning allowed the researchers to study the jump in greater detail. When they saw this brief pause, they switched off the input of photons driving the transitions. Surprisingly, the transition to the dark state still happened even without photons driving it — it is as if, by the time the brief pause sets in, the fate is already fixed. So although the jump itself comes at a random time, there is also something deterministic in its approach.

With the photons turned off, the researchers zoomed in on the jump with fine-grained time resolution to see it unfold. Does it happen instantaneously — the sudden quantum jump of Bohr and Heisenberg? Or does it happen smoothly, as Schrödinger insisted it must? And if so, how?

The team found that jumps are in fact gradual. That’s because, even though a direct observation could reveal the system only as being in one state or another, during a quantum jump the system is in a superposition, or mixture, of these two end states. As the jump progresses, a direct measurement would be increasingly likely to yield the final rather than the initial state. It’s a bit like the way our decisions may evolve over time. You can only either stay at a party or leave it — it’s a binary choice — but as the evening wears on and you get tired, the question “Are you staying or leaving?” becomes increasingly likely to get the answer “I’m leaving.”

The techniques developed by the Yale team reveal the changing mindset of a system during a quantum jump. Using a method called tomographic reconstruction, the researchers could figure out the relative weightings of the dark and ground states in the superposition. They saw these weights change gradually over a period of a few microseconds. That’s pretty fast, but it’s certainly not instantaneous.

What’s more, this electronic system is so fast that the researchers could “catch” the switch between the two states as it is happening, then reverse it by sending a pulse of photons into the cavity to boost the system back to the dark state. They can persuade the system to change its mind and stay at the party after all.

Flash of Insight

The experiment shows that quantum jumps “are indeed not instantaneous if we look closely enough,” said Oliver, “but are coherent processes”: real physical events that unfold over time.

The gradualness of the “jump” is just what is predicted by a form of quantum theory called quantum trajectories theory, which can describe individual events like this. “It is reassuring that the theory matches perfectly with what is seen” said David DiVincenzo, an expert in quantum information at Aachen University in Germany, “but it’s a subtle theory, and we are far from having gotten our heads completely around it.”

The possibility of predicting a quantum jumps just before they occur, said Devoret, makes them somewhat like volcanic eruptions. Each eruption happens unpredictably, but some big ones can be anticipated by watching for the atypically quiet period that precedes them. “To the best of our knowledge, this precursory signal (to a quantum jump) has not been proposed or measured before,” he said.

Devoret said that an ability to spot precursors to quantum jumps might find applications in quantum sensing technologies. For example, “in atomic clock measurements, one wants to synchronize the clock to the transition frequency of an atom, which serves as a reference,” he said. But if you can detect right at the start if the transition is about to happen, rather than having to wait for it to be completed, the synchronization can be faster and therefore more precise in the long run.

DiVincenzo thinks that the work might also find applications in error correction for quantum computing, although he sees that as “quite far down the line.” To achieve the level of control needed for dealing with such errors, though, will require this kind of exhaustive harvesting of measurement data — rather like the data-intensive situation in particle physics, said DiVincenzo.

The real value of the result is not, though, in any practical benefits; it’s a matter of what we learn about the workings of the quantum world. Yes, it is shot through with randomness — but no, it is not punctuated by instantaneous jerks. Schrödinger, aptly enough, was both right and wrong at the same time.

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