10/22/2019 Jenny Gumbert

Autumn Research Fair 2019: Quantum Optics in an Undergraduate Laboratory

When Jill Ireland decided to leave Nashua, N.H., to attend Franklin & Marshall College, she didn’t know that she would soon be engaged in research that would have a significant effect on the learning experiences of her fellow students.

But thanks to a Hackman Scholarship, which enables F&M students to gain hands-on research experience, the physics and economics double major began collaborating on a research project with Amy Lytle, associate professor of physics, last academic year. 

With Ireland’s help, Lytle sought to bring a series of experiments to the Department of Physics and Astronomy designed to let students investigate the strange behavior of quantum mechanics. Since quantum communication and information is now popular in the optics research community, the interest has made generation and detection of single photons and entangled photon pairs much easier and cheaper.

  • F&M junior Jill Ireland helped Professor Lytle with a series of experiments F&M's Department of Physics and Astronomy designed to let students investigate the strange behavior of quantum mechanics. F&M junior Jill Ireland helped Professor Lytle with a series of experiments F&M's Department of Physics and Astronomy designed to let students investigate the strange behavior of quantum mechanics. Image Credit: Deb Grove

“Until now, it's been impractical for undergraduate laboratories to include investigations on single photon interference and quantum entanglement, so students had to be satisfied with only the theory and take our word that it's really true,” Lytle said. “With these experiments, students can observe the fascinating and sometimes strange consequences of quantum mechanics directly.”

Last summer, Lytle attended an ALPhA Immersions workshop at Colgate University, one of several colleges who have been developing these types of experiments. She and Ireland have since reproduced and tested several experiments to be integrated into courses at F&M.

“This was my first introduction to optical alignment so the process of getting some of these alignments was a little frustrating for me at first,” Ireland admitted. “It was hard sometimes because you have to make sure that you have all of the parts and that they’re working together properly. But once you get it, it’s very rewarding.”

Lytle has been impressed with Ireland’s abilities, especially considering that the junior entered the project not yet having taken F&M’s quantum mechanics or experimental methods courses. 

“She's shown a lot of independence in learning, constructing, and troubleshooting all the different electronic and optical equipment needed for this setup,” Lytle explained. “When future students do these experiments, they'll be able to focus on their observations and the results, since Jill's done the heavy lifting behind the scenes. Her patience, skill and persistence are why her fellow students are able to try these experiments already this semester in our ‘Experimental Methods’ course.”

And their collective contribution to F&M’s physics department isn’t over yet. “We hope to do further work in integrating these experiments with research-based tutorials to supplement and measure student thinking," Ireland said. 

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