Imagine trying to measure a tennis ball that bounces wildly, every time to a distance a million times its own size. The bouncing obviously creates enormous “background noise” that interferes with the measurement. But if you attach the ball directly to a measuring device, so they bounce together, you can eliminate the noise problem.
As reported recently in Nature, physicists at the Weizmann Institute of Science used a similar trick to measure the interaction between the smallest possible magnets – two single electrons – after neutralizing magnetic noise that was a million times stronger than the signal they needed to detect.
Dr. Roee Ozeri of the Institute’s Physics of Complex Systems Department says: “The electron has spin, a form of orientation involving two opposing magnetic poles. In fact, it’s a tiny bar magnet.” The question is whether pairs of electrons act like regular bar magnets in which the opposite poles attract one another.
Dr. Shlomi Kotler performed the study while a graduate student under Dr. Ozeri’s guidance, with Drs. Nitzan Akerman, Nir Navon and Yinnon Glickman. Detecting the magnetic interaction of two electrons poses an enormous challenge: When the electrons are at a close range – as they normally are in an atomic orbit – forces other than the magnetic one prevail. On the other hand, if the electrons are pulled apart, the magnetic force becomes dominant, but so weak in absolute terms that it’s easily drowned out by ambient magnetic noise emanating from power lines, lab equipment and the earth’s magnetic field.
The scientists overcame the problem by borrowing a trick from quantum computing that protects quantum information from outside interference. This technique binds two electrons together so that their spins point in opposite directions. Thus, like the bouncing tennis ball attached to the measuring device, the combination of equal but opposite spins makes the electron pair impervious to magnetic noise.