Light interference from single atoms and their mirror images


A single atom emitting single photons is a fundamental source of light. But the characteristics of this light depend strongly on the environment of the atom1,2. For example, if an atom is placed between two mirrors, both the total rate and the spectral composition of the spontaneous emission can be modified. Such effects have been observed using various systems: molecules deposited on mirrors3, dye molecules in an optical cavity4, an atom beam traversing a two-mirror optical resonator5,6,7,8, single atoms traversing a microwave cavity9,10,11 and a single trapped electron12. A related and equally fundamental phenomenon is the optical interaction between two atoms of the same kind when their separation is comparable to their emission wavelength. In this situation, light emitted by one atom may be reabsorbed by the other, leading to cooperative processes in the emission13,14. Here we observe these phenomena with high visibility by using one or two single atom(s), a collimating lens and a mirror, and by recording the individual photons scattered by the atom(s). Our experiments highlight the intimate connection between one-atom and two-atom effects, and allow their continuous observation using the same apparatus.

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Figure 1: Experimental set-up (main figure) and relevant levels, transition wavelengths, and linewidths of Ba+ (inset).
Figure 2: Self-interference in fluorescence of a single atom: photon count rate at PM1 versus mirror displacement (points).
Figure 3: Interference fringes at 493 nm (a) and simultaneously recorded fluorescence at 650 nm transmitted through the mirror (b).
Figure 4: Interference fringes as in Fig. 2 but now with two ions, each interfering with the mirror image of the other.


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We thank P. Zoller, D. Leibfried and G. Morigi for helpful discussions. We gratefully acknowledge support by the European Commission (TMR network QSTRUCT), by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), and by the Institut für Quanteninformation GmbH.

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Correspondence to J. Eschner.

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Eschner, J., Raab, C., Schmidt-Kaler, F. et al. Light interference from single atoms and their mirror images. Nature 413, 495–498 (2001).

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