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To thermalize, or not to thermalize?
Intuition tells us that an isolated physical system subjected to a sudden change (i.e., quenching) will evolve in a way that maximizes its entropy. If the system is in a pure, zero-entropy quantum state, it is expected to remain so even after quenching. How do we then reconcile statistical mechanics with quantum laws? To address this question, Kaufman et al. used their quantum microscope to study strings of six rubidium atoms confined in the wells of an optical lattice (see the Perspective by Polkovnikov and Sels). When tunneling along the strings was suddenly switched on, the strings as a whole remained in a pure state, but smaller subsets of two or three atoms conformed to a thermal distribution. The force driving the thermalization was quantum entanglement.
Statistical mechanics relies on the maximization of entropy in a system at thermal equilibrium. However, an isolated quantum many-body system initialized in a pure state remains pure during Schrödinger evolution, and in this sense it has static, zero entropy. We experimentally studied the emergence of statistical mechanics in a quantum state and observed the fundamental role of quantum entanglement in facilitating this emergence. Microscopy of an evolving quantum system indicates that the full quantum state remains pure, whereas thermalization occurs on a local scale. We directly measured entanglement entropy, which assumes the role of the thermal entropy in thermalization. The entanglement creates local entropy that validates the use of statistical physics for local observables. Our measurements are consistent with the eigenstate thermalization hypothesis.