Some quantum particles gotta get right back to where they started from.
Physicists have confirmed a theoretically predicted phenomenon called the quantum boomerang effect. An experiment reveals that, after being given a nudge, particles in certain materials return to their starting points, on average, researchers report in a paper accepted in Physical Review X.
Particles can boomerang if they’re in a material that has lots of disorder. Instead of a pristine material made up of orderly arranged atoms, the material must have many defects, such as atoms that are missing or misaligned, or other types of atoms sprinkled throughout.
In 1958, physicist Philip Anderson realized that with enough disorder, electrons in a material become localized: They get stuck in place, unable to travel very far from where they started. The pinned-down electrons prevent the material from conducting electricity, thereby turning what might otherwise be a metal into an insulator. That localization is also necessary for the boomerang effect.
To picture the boomerang in action, physicist David Weld of the University of California, Santa Barbara imagines shrinking himself down and slipping inside a disordered material. If he tries to fling away an electron, he says, “it will not only turn around and come straight back to me, it’ll come right back to me and stop.” (Actually, he says, in this sense the electron is “more like a dog than a boomerang.” The boomerang will keep going past you if you don’t catch it, but a well-trained dog will sit by your side.)
Weld and colleagues demonstrated this effect using ultracold lithium atoms as stand-ins for the electrons. Instead of looking for atoms returning to their original position, the team studied the analogous situation for momentum, because that was relatively straightforward to create in the lab. The atoms were initially stationary, but after being given kicks from lasers to give them momenta, the atoms returned, on average, to their original standstill states, making a momentum boomerang.
The team also determined what’s needed to break the boomerang. To work, the boomerang effect requires time-reversal symmetry, meaning that the particles should behave the same when time runs forward as they would on rewind. By changing the timing of the first kick from the lasers so that the kicking pattern was off-kilter, the researchers broke time-reversal symmetry, and the boomerang effect disappeared, as predicted.
“I was so happy,” says Patrizia Vignolo, a coauthor of the study. “It was perfect agreement” with their theoretical calculations, says Vignolo, a theoretical physicist at Université Côte d’Azur based in Valbonne, France.
Even though Anderson made his discovery about localized particles more than 60 years ago, the quantum boomerang effect is a recent newcomer to physics. “Nobody thought about it, apparently, probably because it’s very counterintuitive,” says physicist Dominique Delande of CNRS and Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris, who predicted the effect with colleagues in 2019.
The weird effect is the result of quantum physics. Quantum particles act like waves, with ripples that can add and subtract in complicated ways (SN: 5/3/19). Those waves combine to enhance the trajectory that returns a particle to its origin and cancel out paths that go off in other directions. “This is a pure quantum effect,” Delande says, “so it has no equivalent in classical physics.”