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What do atoms sound like? Whatever you want them to, it turns out. Scientists have shown that sound waves can be used to interact with an individual atom and make it produce sound in response — on a scale where such waves can barely exist. The Chalmers University of Technology team, led by Per Delsing, used an artificial atom, cooled to nearly absolute zero and mounted on a tiny electronic chip, to show that it's not just light and electromagnetic radiation that can propagate at the quantum level. Their findings were published in the journal Science.
The Swedish researchers tuned a "surface acoustic wave," a sort of vibration of material on the chip itself, to the frequency they expected their custom atom (a very large one at that) to respond to — and succeeded. The atom absorbed the energy of the SAW and produced phonons, a sort of ultra-tiny sound wave, in response. It's the first time a single atom has been excited acoustically this way, and that could aid in the production of quantum machines — since sound waves are often easier to manage that electromagnetic waves. And what musical note did this atom respond to, you ask? D — but about 20 octaves higher than you'd get on a piano.
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