When quantum mechanics was first developed a century ago as a theory for understanding the atomic-scale world, one of its key concepts was so radical, bold and counter-intuitive that it passed into popular language: the “quantum leap.” Purists might object that the common habit of applying this term to a big change misses the point that jumps between two quantum states are typically tiny, which is precisely why they weren’t noticed sooner. But the real point is that they’re sudden. So sudden, in fact, that many of the pioneers of quantum mechanics assumed they were instantaneous.
A new experiment shows that they aren’t. By making a kind of high-speed movie of a quantum leap, the work reveals that the process is as gradual as the melting of a snowman in the sun. “If we can measure a quantum jump fast and efficiently enough,” said Michel Devoret of Yale University, “it is actually a continuous process.” The study, which was led by Zlatko Minev, a graduate student in Devoret’s lab, was published on Monday in Nature. Already, colleagues are excited. “This is really a fantastic experiment,” said the physicist William Oliver of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wasn’t involved in the work. “Really amazing.”
But there’s more. With their high-speed monitoring system, the researchers could spot when a quantum jump was about to appear, “catch” it halfway through, and reverse it, sending the system back to the state in which it started. In this way, what seemed to the quantum pioneers to be unavoidable randomness in the physical world is now shown to be amenable to control. We can take charge of the quantum.