Atomic Streak Camera Sees Rydberg Atoms Falling Apart

Highly excited or Rydberg atoms are an ideal quantum laboratory. In a Rydberg atom, the loosely bound electron moves in a large Kepler orbit around the atomic nucleus and is very sensitive to external perturbations. For instance, by applying a moderate electric field, the behavior of the quantum system is drastically influenced. A static field of a few Kilovolts per centimeter is sufficient to change the bound Rydberg atom into a system in which the electron can escape. Within a few picoseconds (10-12 sec) the atom falls apart. It is an experimental challenge to detect how this decay actually happens. Does the electron come out immediately, or does the atom emit the electron in subsequent bursts of probability, that are signatures of the quantum nature of the system?

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