Long ago, Paul Lévy invented a strange family of random walks – where each segment has a very broad probability distribution. These flights, when they are observed on a macroscopic scale, do not follow the standard Gaussian statistics. When I was a student, Lévy's idea appeared to me as (a) amusing, (b) simple – all the statistics can be handled via Fourier transforms – and (c) somewhat baroque: where would it apply?
As often happens with new mathematical ideas, the fruits came later. For example, é. Bouchaud proved that adsorbed polymer chains often behave like Lévy flights. In a very different sector, J.P. Bouchaud showed the role of Lévy distributions in risk evaluation. Now we meet a third major example, which is described in this book: cold atoms.
The starting point is a jewel of quantum physics: we think of an atom in a state of 0 translational momentum p = 0 (zero Doppler effect), inside a suitably prescribed laser field. For instance, with an angular momentum J = 1 we can have two ground states │+〉 and │−〉, and one excited state │0〉. The particular state │+〉+│−〉 has an admirable property: it is entirely decoupled from the radiation and can live for an indefinitely long time. It is thus possible to create a trap (around p = 0 in momentum space) in which the atoms will live for very long times: this so-called ‘ subrecoil laser cooling’ has been a major advance of recent years.