Direct sampling of electric-field vacuum fluctuations

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Science  01 Oct 2015:
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac9788

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The ground state of quantum systems is characterized by zero-point motion. Those vacuum fluctuations are generally deemed an elusive phenomenon that manifests itself only indirectly. Here, we report direct detection of the vacuum fluctuations of electromagnetic radiation in free space. The ground-state electric field variance is found to be inversely proportional to the four-dimensional space-time volume sampled electro-optically with tightly focused few-femtosecond laser pulses. Sub-cycle temporal readout and nonlinear coupling far from resonance provide signals from purely virtual photons without amplification. Our findings enable an extreme time-domain approach to quantum physics with nondestructive access to the quantum state of light. Operating at multi-terahertz frequencies, such techniques might also allow time-resolved studies of intrinsic fluctuations of elementary excitations in condensed matter.

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