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Acceleration of quantum decay processes by frequent observations

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In theory, the decay of any unstable quantum state can be inhibited by sufficiently frequent measurements - the quantum Zeno effect. Although this prediction has been tested only for transitions between two coupled, essentially stable states, the quantum Zeno effect is thought to be a general feature of quantum mechanics, applicable to radioactive or radiative decay processes. This generality arises from the assumption that, in principle, successive observations can be made at time intervals too short for the system to change appreciably. Here we show not only that the quantum Zeno effect is fundamentally unattainable in radiative or radioactive decay (because the required measurement rates would cause the system to disintegrate), but also that these processes may be accelerated by frequent measurements. We find that the modification of the decay process is determined by the energy spread incurred by the measurements (as a result of the time-energy uncertainty relation), and the distribution of states to which the decaying state is coupled. Whereas the inhibitory quantum Zeno effect may be feasible in a limited class of systems, the opposite effect - accelerated decay - appears to be much more ubiquitous.




Kofman, A. G., & Kurizki, G. (2000). Acceleration of quantum decay processes by frequent observations. Nature, 405(6786), 546–550.

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