Synthesis of a classical atom: wavepacket analogues of the Trojan asteroids
The reason why atomic physicists are interested in celestial mechanics is simple: the gravitational and Coulombic potentials are mathematically identical and a one-electron atom is, therefore, governed by the same Hamiltonian as is the Kepler problem. However, once one goes beyond the two-body Kepler problem the connections between atomic physics and celestial mechanics become less direct. For example, the three-body problem, arguably the raison d'etre of celestial mechanics for several centuries, has received relatively little attention from atomic physicists because it does not have a direct quantum counterpart: three quantum particles cannot mutually attract one another and at the same time interact through a purely Coulombic force law. Nevertheless, in the last five years several research groups have discovered that quantum analogues of a particular limit of the three-body problem, the restricted three-body problem, not only exist but contain dramatically new physics. This article will describe this work and in particular will demonstrate the possibility of producing localized electronic states in atoms that are direct analogs of the coherent states of the harmonic oscillator. These coherent wavepackets behave in a similar way to the coherent states of the harmonic oscillator and the resulting atom mimics a 'classical' or Bohr atom although external fields must be used to maintain their integrity. Such wavepacket states are of as much fundamental interest in laser chemistry as they are in atomic, molecular, optical, and solid state physics. The potential applications of time-evolving quantum wavepackets seem limitless; some examples of their uses include: the exploration of the boundary between classical and quantum mechanics, the investigation of the interpretation of quantum mechanics by creating experimental realizations of such classic experiments as Schrodinger's Cat, the control of chemical reaction dynamics to achieve laser isotope separation, the storage of coherence for quantum computational or communications purposes, and the construction of optical switches and modulators.
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