Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have uncovered an entirely new kind of quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that causes particles to become weirdly linked, even across vast cosmic distances, reports a new study. The discovery allowed them to capture an unprecedented glimpse of the bizarre world inside atoms, the tiny building blocks of matter. This mind-bending research solves a longstanding mystery regarding the nuclei and particles of atoms. These contain protons and neutrons. It could shed light on topics such as quantum computing and astrophysics. The exciting discoveries were made at Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, a facility that accelerates charged atoms (also known as ions) to near light speed. These ions can collide or even pass close to each other, exposing the internal workings of the atoms. This is governed by quantum mechanics’ trippy laws.
A lot of strange things happen in this small realm. However, quantum entanglement is a peculiar phenomenon that Albert Einstein described as “spooky act at a distance.” It occurs when two particles collide, or even pass near each other. This causes their properties, such as momentum and spin, to be synchronized, even though they are millions of light-years apart. Quantum entanglement has been demonstrated countless times in laboratories, but the entangled particles have always belonged to the same group and possessed the same charge, such as photons, which have no charge, or electrons, which are negatively charged.
Now, for the first time ever, scientists at Brookhaven have captured interference patterns that are created by the entanglement of two particles with different charges, a breakthrough that has opened up a completely new window into the mysterious innards of atoms that make up visible matter in the universe, according to a study published on Wednesday in Science Advances.
“There’s never been any measurement in the past of interference between distinguishable particles,” said Daniel Brandenburg, a physics professor at the Ohio State University who co-authored the new study, in a call with Motherboard. “That’s the discovery; the application is that we get to use it to do some nuclear physics.”
“I wasn’t even, in a sense, trying to find something so fundamental about quantum mechanics,” he continued. “When we realized that there’s something really interesting going on here, that was a really big surprise to me.”
Brandenburg and his colleagues achieved this milestone with the help of a sensitive detector called the Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC, or STAR, that captured interactions between gold ions that were boosted to the brink of light speed. Clouds of photons, which are particles that carry light, surround the ions and interact with another type of particle, called gluons, that hold atomic nuclei together. These interactions between photons and gluons launched a series of events that eventually led to the creation of two new particles called pions. They have opposing charges, one positive and one negative. The STAR detector measured key characteristics of the pions, including velocity and angle, so they could be used for measuring the size and shape of gluons within the atomic nuclei. This precision was unprecedented.
“It’s like a microscope in the sense that you use a photon to look at something,” Brandenburg explained. “In this case, we’re using really, really high-energy photons, where their wavelength is short enough that we can actually look at the inside of an atom.”
Scientists have imaged atomic nuclei at lower energies before, but attempts to probe these structures at high energies has always produced a puzzling result. Scientists have been puzzled for years by the fact that nuclei seen in these experiments appear larger than their models suggest.
Now, the STAR collaboration has now solved this mystery by pinpointing a blurring effect that is linked to the photons in the experiment. Essentially, past studies captured one-dimensional glimpses of nuclei that did not account for important patterns in photons, such as their polarization direction. The new study included this polarization information, allowing Brandenburg and his colleagues to probe the nuclei from two angles, parallel and perpendicular to the photon’s motion, producing a two-dimensional view that matches theoretical predictions.
The team was also able to determine the positions and distributions of the gluons in the nucleus. It also offers a new way to unravel persistent mysteries about the behavior of atoms at high energies.
“As we look deeper into the nucleus and see the areas that are less energetic, it’s very important that the nucleus stays together. But, there’s not much that we know about this part of nucleus.” Brandenburg stated. “So as you go to higher and higher energies, you really don’t know what it looks like.”
“That’s why more measurements with higher precision will be poised to really make a statement about this energy dependence and what the heart of the nucleus is doing at these different scales,” he added.
To that point, Brandenburg hopes to repeat this technique, and versions of it, at RHIC and other facilities like the Large Hadron Collider, in order to tease out the long-hidden details inside atomic nuclei.
Gazing in atoms at high energies may help scientists solve some of the most difficult problems in science. This includes the great mystery about how quantum reality can exist alongside ours, which follows the more traditional rules of classical Physics. This technology, known as quantum computing, has many practical uses, including in quantum computing. It aims to revolutionize computations by using the bizarre rules of quantum world.
“By comparing different nuclei, and looking at the process with higher precision we can learn more and better details,” Brandenburg said. “What we did here is a proof of concept, but there’s a lot more opportunity.”
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