Reflections on Quantum Backflow
Yesterday afternoon I attended a very interesting physics seminar by the splendidly-named Gandalf Lechner of the School of Mathematics here at Cardiff University. The topic was one I’d never thought about before, called quantum backflow. I went to the talk because I was intrigued by the abstract which had been circulated previously by email, the first part of which reads:
Suppose you are standing at a bus stop in the hope of catching a bus, but are unsure if the bus has passed the stop already. In that situation, common sense tells you that the longer you have to wait, the more likely it is that the bus has not passed the stop already. While this common sense intuition is perfectly accurate if you are waiting for a classical bus, waiting for a quantum bus is quite different: For a quantum bus, the probability of finding it to your left on measuring its position may increase with time, although the bus is moving from left to right with certainty. This peculiar quantum effect is known as backflow.
To be a little more precise about this, imagine you are standing at the origin (x=0). In the classical version of the situation you know that the bus is moving with some constant definite (but unknown) positive velocity v. In other words you know that it is moving from left to right, but you don’t know with what speed v or at what time t0 or from what position (x0<0) it set out. A little thought, (perhaps with the aid of some toy examples where you assign a probability distribution to v, t0 and x0) will convince you that the resulting probability distribution for x moves from left to right with time in such a way that the probability of the bus still being to the left of the observer, L(t), represented by the proportion of the overall distribution that lies at x<0 generally decreases with time. Note that this is not what it says in the second sentence of the abstract; no doubt a deliberate mistake was put in to test the reader!
If we then stretch our imagination and suppose that the bus is not described by classical mechanics but by quantum mechanics then things change a bit. If we insist that it is travelling from left to right then that means that the momentum-space representation of the wave function must be cut off for p<0 (corresponding to negative velocities). Assume that the bus is a “free particle” described by the relevant Schrödinger equation.One can then calculate the evolution of the position-space wave function. Remember that these two representations of the wave function are just related by a Fourier transform. Solving the Schrödinger equation for the time evolution of the spatial wave function (with appropriately-chosen initial conditions) allows one to calculate how the probability of finding the particle at a given value of x evolves with time. In contrast to the classical case, it is possible for the corresponding L(t) does not always decrease with time.
To put all this another way, the probability current in the classical case is always directed from left to right, but in the quantum case that isn’t necessarily true. One can see how this happens by thinking about what the wave function actually looks like: an imposed cutoff in momentum can imply a spatial wave function that is rather wiggly which means the probability distribution is wiggly too, but the detailed shape changes with time. As these wiggles pass the origin the area under the probability distribution to the left of the observer can go up as well as down. The particle may be going from left to right, but the associated probability flux can behave in a more complicated fashion, sometimes going in the opposite direction.
For a more technical discussion of this phenomenon see this review article. The exact nature of the effect is dependent on the precise form of the initial conditions chosen and there are some quantum systems for which no backflow happens at all. The effect has never been detected experimentally, but a recent paper has suggested that it might be measured. Here is the abstract:
Quantum backflow is a classically forbidden effect consisting in a negative flux for states with negligible negative momentum components. It has never been observed experimentally so far. We derive a general relation that connects backflow with a critical value of the particle density, paving the way for the detection of backflow by a density measurement. To this end, we propose an explicit scheme with Bose-Einstein condensates, at reach with current experimental technologies. Remarkably, the application of a positive momentum kick, via a Bragg pulse, to a condensate with a positive velocity may cause a current flow in the negative direction.