Observation of three-photon bound states in a quantum nonlinear medium

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Science  16 Feb 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6377, pp. 783-786
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao7293

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Forming photonic bound states

Photons do not naturally interact with each other and must be coaxed into doing so. Liang et al. show that a gas of Rydberg atoms—a cloud of rubidium atoms excited by a sequence of laser pulses—can induce strong interactions between propagating photons. The authors could tune the strength of the interaction to make the photons form dimer and trimer bound states. This approach should prove useful for producing novel quantum states of light and quantum entanglement on demand.

Science, this issue p. 783


Bound states of massive particles, such as nuclei, atoms, or molecules, constitute the bulk of the visible world around us. By contrast, photons typically only interact weakly. We report the observation of traveling three-photon bound states in a quantum nonlinear medium where the interactions between photons are mediated by atomic Rydberg states. Photon correlation and conditional phase measurements reveal the distinct bunching and phase features associated with three-photon and two-photon bound states. Such photonic trimers and dimers possess shape-preserving wave functions that depend on the constituent photon number. The observed bunching and strongly nonlinear optical phase are described by an effective field theory of Rydberg-induced photon-photon interactions. These observations demonstrate the ability to realize and control strongly interacting quantum many-body states of light.

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