Dec 22, 2016

The sound of quantum vacuum

Posted by in categories: media & arts, quantum physics

Quantum mechanics dictates sensitivity limits in the measurements of displacement, velocity and acceleration. A recent experiment at the Niels Bohr Institute probes these limits, analyzing how quantum fluctuations set a sensor membrane into motion in the process of a measurement. The membrane is an accurate model for future ultraprecise quantum sensors, whose complex nature may even hold the key to overcome fundamental quantum limits. The results are published in the scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Vibrating strings and membranes are at the heart of many musical instruments. Plucking a string excites it to vibrations, at a frequency determined by its length and tension. Apart from the fundamental frequency — corresponding to the musical note — the string also vibrates at higher frequencies. These overtones influence how we perceive the ‘sound’ of the instrument, and allow us to tell a guitar from a violin. Similarly, beating a drumhead excites vibrations at a number of frequencies simultaneously.

These matters are not different when scaling down, from the half-meter bass drum in a classic orchestra to the half-millimeter-sized membrane studied recently at the Niels Bohr Institute. And yet, some things are not the same at all: using sophisticated optical measurement techniques, a team lead by Professor Albert Schliesser could show that the membrane’s vibrations, including all its overtones, follow the strange laws of quantum mechanics. In their experiment, these quantum laws implied that the mere attempt to precisely measure the membrane vibrations sets it into motion. As if looking at a drum already made it hum!

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