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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: October 2013

7 - Quantum co-operation and superfluids


… there are certain situations in which the peculiarities of quantum mechanics can come out in a special way on a large scale.

Richard Feynman

Laser light

Nowadays, everyone has heard of lasers, and laser light displays are a frequent ingredient of modern rock concerts. Laser light has many applications, ranging from astronomy to hydrogen fusion. What is the special feature of laser light that makes it so useful? The answer to this question involves a property of wave motion known as ‘coherence’, with light photons acting together in a special form of quantum mechanical co-operation. This type of quantum co-operation will turn out to be vital for an understanding of the peculiar behaviour of quantum ‘superfluids’. To understand the special nature of laser light, however, we must first explain what is meant by coherence.

Consider the simple wave motion shown in Fig. 7.1. We see that the pattern repeats itself after one wavelength and the frequency of the wave corresponds to the number of wavelengths sent out per second. If this wave is a wave on a string, each point on the string just moves up and down with a certain amplitude: the maximum distance the point can move out to before it starts to come back. Up to now, this is really all we have needed to know about waves. Now consider two waves of the same wavelength but started at slightly different times, as shown in Fig. 7.2.