A self-interfering clock as a “which path” witness

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Science  11 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6253, pp. 1205-1208
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac6498

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Interfering with time

The interference pattern arising from light or particles passing through a double slit is a simple experiment that belies the subtleties of interpretation when attempting to describe and understand the effect. For example, determining “which path” the light or particles travel can result in the interference pattern disappearing. Margalit et al. present a new take on interferometry using time (see the Perspective by Arndt and Brand). A clock—i.e., the internal state of a cold atom condensate—was coherently split and brought back together to interfere. Making one-half of the clock tick at a different rate resulted in a change in the interference pattern, possibly as a consequence of the time being a “which path” witness.

Science, this issue p. 1205; see also p. 1168


In Einstein’s general theory of relativity, time depends locally on gravity; in standard quantum theory, time is global—all clocks “tick” uniformly. We demonstrate a new tool for investigating time in the overlap of these two theories: a self-interfering clock, comprising two atomic spin states. We prepare the clock in a spatial superposition of quantum wave packets, which evolve coherently along two paths into a stable interference pattern. If we make the clock wave packets “tick” at different rates, to simulate a gravitational time lag, the clock time along each path yields “which path” information, degrading the pattern’s visibility. In contrast, in standard interferometry, time cannot yield “which path” information. This proof-of-principle experiment may have implications for the study of time and general relativity and their impact on fundamental effects such as decoherence and the emergence of a classical world.

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