Quantum equilibration, thermalization and prethermalization in ultracold atoms


Over the past decade, there has been remarkable progress in our understanding of equilibration, thermalization and prethermalization, due in large part to experimental breakthroughs in ultracold atomic gases. These advances have made it possible to investigate how isolated quantum systems thermalize and why certain special many-body states do not. An overview on recent theoretical and experimental developments is given.

Key points

  • Equilibration, thermalization and prethermalization are universal phenomena that occur through loss of memory about the initial state of a system. Quantum thermalization proceeds through formation of entanglement: a subsystem can appear thermal if it is sufficiently entangled with the rest of the system.

  • Ultracold atomic gases offer an ideal testbed for the fundamental study of relaxation, thermalization and prethermalization of isolated quantum systems because they can be almost perfectly isolated from surrounding environments or subjected to controlled dissipation.

  • A number of remarkable experiments on fundamental aspects of thermalization have been reported in ultracold atomic systems, for which all microscopic details are known and can be controlled to high precision. This is a field where theory and experiment cross-fertilize.

  • A many-body scar may be viewed as a many-body dark state, and belongs to a broad class of those states that are metastable in dissipative non-equilibrium situations. Such states are not thermal, but may be prethermal.

  • Arguably, the most challenging problem is to identify a class of robust non-equilibrium states in an open dissipative environment. Many long-lived many-body systems could belong to this class.

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Fig. 1: Newton’s cradle of ultracold atoms.
Fig. 2: Distance-to-thermalization metric versus evolution time for bosonic dysprosium atoms with strong dipolar interactions, in an array of 1D tubes.
Fig. 3: Thermalization of a pure, zero-entropy state through formation of quantum entanglement.
Fig. 4: Many-body localization in 2D.
Fig. 5: Exploring entanglement in a many-body localized system.
Fig. 6: Dynamical scaling in a spin-1 Bose–Einstein condensate.


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I acknowledge my present and former group members from whom I learned numerous things concerning the subjects described in this article. Special thanks are due to T. Mori, R. Hamazaki and Z. Gong who are always willing to share their expertise with me. This work was supported by KAKENHI grant number JP18H01145.

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Ueda, M. Quantum equilibration, thermalization and prethermalization in ultracold atoms. Nat Rev Phys 2, 669–681 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42254-020-0237-x

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