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From quantum to classical interactions between a free electron and a surface

Peter James Beierle, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Quantum theory is often cited as being one of the most empirically validated theories in terms of its predictive power and precision. These attributes have led to numerous scientific discoveries and technological advancements. However, the precise relationship between quantum and classical physics remains obscure. The prevailing description is known as decoherence theory, where classical physics emerges from a more general quantum theory through environmental interaction. Sometimes referred to as the decoherence program, it does not solve the quantum measurement problem. We believe experiments performed between the microscopic and macroscopic world may help finish the program. The following considers a free electron that interacts with a surface (the environment), providing a controlled decoherence mechanism. There are non-decohering interactions to be examined and quantified before the weaker decohering effects are filtered out. In the first experiment, an electron beam passes over a surface that’s illuminated by low-power laser light. This induces a surface charge redistribution causing the electron deflection. This phenomenon’s parameters are investigated. This system can be well understood in terms of classical electrodynamics, and the technological applications of this electron beam switch are considered. Such phenomena may mask decoherence effects. A second experiment tests decoherence theory by introducing a nanofabricated diffraction grating before the surface. The electron undergoes diffraction through the grating, but as the electron passes over the surface it’s predicted by various physical models that the electron will lose its wave interference property. Image charge based models, which predict a larger loss of contrast than what is observed, are falsified (despite experiencing an image charge force). A theoretical study demonstrates how a loss of contrast may not be due to the irreversible process decoherence, but dephasing (a reversible process due to randomization of the wavefunction’s phase). To resolve this ambiguity, a correlation function on an ensemble of diffraction patterns is analyzed after an electron undergoes either process in a path integral calculation. The diffraction pattern is successfully recovered for dephasing, but not for decoherence, thus verifying it as a potential tool in experimental studies to determine the nature of the observed process.

Subject Area

Quantum physics|Atomic physics|Optics

Recommended Citation

Beierle, Peter James, "From quantum to classical interactions between a free electron and a surface" (2017). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10682397.