Atom Split Into Two And Then Put Back Together Using Quantum Mechanics

Published on June 5th, 2012 | by

June 5th, 2012 by


An atom has been split into halves, separated, and then put back together, in new research from the University of Bonn. The word “atom” literally means “indivisible,” yet quantum mechanics allows an atom to be split and put back together in a way similar to rays of light.

The researchers are doing this work because they want to build quantum mechanics bridges, by letting the atom being pulled apart touch adjacent atoms, forming a bridge between them.

Dividing atoms brings to mind things like nuclear fission and radiation. However, this is a completely different process. The laws of quantum mechanics allow something to exist in several different states at once. This is what the “double-slit” experiment is based on, an object going to two separate slits at once.

In this experiment, the researchers succeeded in keeping a single atom in two places more than 10 micrometers apart, that’s a one-hundredth of a millimeter. That is an enormous distance for an atom. Afterwords, the atom was put back together undamaged.

These quantum effects can only occur at the lowest temperatures and with very careful handling. One method is to cool a cesium atom using lasers just slightly above absolute zero and then using another laser to move it. The laser is the key to this method because atoms have a spin that can go in two directions. Using the spin, the atom can move to the left of the right like a conveyer belt. The key to this is that the atom’s spin can be in both directions at once.

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“The atom has kind of a split personality, half of it is to the right, and half to the left, and yet, it is still whole,” explained Andreas Steffen, the publication’s lead author.

This isn’t visible directly, though. If you shine a light on the atom, the split will collapse. If imaged, the atom sometimes shows on the left, the right, or in the center, but the split can be proved by putting the atom back together.

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“Thus an interferometer can be built from individual atoms that can, e.g., be used to measure external impacts precisely. Here, the atoms are split, moved apart and joined again. What will become visible, e.g., are differences between the magnetic fields of the two positions or accelerations since they become imprinted in the quantum mechanical state of the atom. This principle has already been used to very precisely survey forces such as Earth’s acceleration.”

The researchers, however, are looking for something else — they want to simulate complex quantum systems. Many physicists are currently trying to simulate plant photosynthesis this way with small quantum systems, because the photosynthesis phenomena can’t be simulated by today’s supercomputers.

The first step to a simulator like this would consist of modeling the movement of electrons in solid bodies, gaining insight for electronic devices.

For something like this to work, though, in addition to the individual atoms being well controlled, they would have to be linked together using the laws of quantum mechanics.

“For us, an atom is a well-controlled and oiled cog,” said Dr. Andrea Alberti, the team lead for the Bonn experiment. “You can build a calculator with remarkable performance using these cogs, but in order for it to work, they have to engage.”

“This is where the actual significance of splitting atoms lies: Because the two halves are put back together again, they can make contact with adjacent atoms to their left and right and then share it. This allows a small network of atoms to form that can be used — like in the memory of a computer — to simulate and control real systems, which would make their secrets more accessible.”

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Source: University of Bonn
Image Credits: molecule and Model via Shuterstock

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  • Carlitos

    I am astounded that many percieve strange consequences resulting from this experiment based upon their lack of knowledge and understanding of the quantum world. The work that was done only shines a light on the wirld and wacky world that already exists in the world of small.

  • Jeff

    I have been doing this exact same thing for years in my lab in my treehouse. I take them apart and then they go right back together… No one believed me..but when you touch them you can tell they are in two pieces.

    • Don Rappe

      The atom in this experiment is doing what all atoms do all the time. Therefore the explanation “split and recombined” should be regarded as a grossly erroneous description.

  • peter

    Quatum physics is about understanding that beneath an apparent duality is unity….or in this case, the opposite, within the atom is duality. It doesn’t seem as though the researchers are “ripping appart” the atom. Merely they are discovering and utilizing the dual nature of the spins of an atom. They are not ripping apart anything. I don’t know if this will have a negative consequence or some kind of reprocussion in the future, but it seems less harmful than the comments above. It is utilizing our knowledge of the duality of atoms rather than brutality splitting them. This seems like an interesting and more safe approach than our classical physics and applications of the past. But the question is, am I correct? Does anyone out there know?

  • David Lambert, Ph.D.

    This experiment, the double-slit experiment, does not split anything into two. When an atom going through the double-slit, it literally goes through both slits at the same time. An atom can do this because it behaves like a wave in experiments designed for waves.

    I know this sounds weird! The world behaves like this at tiny distances. But our common sense is formed by experiences in situations where the weird quantum mechanical behavior averages out, giving us the behavior we call common sense.

    Quantum mechanics predicts this weird behavior, and all experiments designed to test the predictions of quantum mechanics shows this weird behavior.

    But quantum mechanics is everywhere. All of chemistry is applied quantum mechanics. The transistors in your computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices work because of quantum mechanics. Lasers work because of quantum mechanics. The hydrogen fusion that powers our own Sun is quantum mechanics in action.

    David Lambert
    Ph.D. in experimental particle physics.

    • Andrew Palfreyman

      dave lambert from munich 1978-86?

    • Don Rappe

      Right on, Dave!

  • Evan

    It appears this classic stanza has finally become outdated:

    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
    All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
    Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

  • Earl

    To Karen,
    Problem is we havent developed a listening device small enough to hear the Whos. Only Horton can hear them.

    • Karen Holmes

      Ironically, I thought of adding some comment about Horton. My other thought was the final scene in Men in Black. Bit of levity.

  • keyeser soze

    If the human brain operates off of electrons, then really all that means is that our brains go in out of other dimensions/universes with the help of dark energy and/or dark matter.What does this science mean for Noetic Science?

    • Carlitos

      Dark Matter and Dark energy are celetial forces that have no mass, are invisible and exert forces of attraction and repulsion on objects. To date, nobody knows anything about either of these forces. Clearly they have nothing to do9 with brain chemistry.

  • keyeser soze

    All this really means is that we are dipping into multitple universes to manipulate the spin of atoms and electrons for the purposes of teleportation. FedEx will soon be out of business.

    • Carlitos

      Teleportation is actually not prohibited by the laws of physics at the quantum level but is probably not achievable at the macro level.

  • Someone

    To Karen,

    Um, so if the tiny universe is being torn apart, what is happening when the complex processes involved in respiration cause for the molecules that form and sustain your life? Could it be that with every breath you’re causing for the merging and splitting of multiple universes on a scale that is nigh unfathomable!?

    EGAD! what could be happening when you drive your car!? such woe for the universes!

    • Bean

      No, that’s not quite what we mean by that.

    • Karen Holmes

      None of the atoms that are being split have reached their full potential. You are welcome to breathe as much as you wish without fear.

      The implications of this experiment are important, though. Science and technology should address plan review before they are undertaken. I would like to see mankind all come together with shared research, and cultural review. The idea that “I am a scientist and therefore I know more than you, and I don’t have to listen to you,” is not something that should be tolerated. If someone objects to something, that perspective should be regarded.

  • Mitzi Hammond Perkins

    Beam me up, Scotty!

  • While dividing an atom into two and then reconstructing it can be regarded as a remarkable accomplishment, such things as tearing apart a component of the Universe is not a good idea. Science has not yet discovered the nature of the atom. soon you will discover each atom is a Universe, which means it is a Universe within a Universe within a Universe, and by tearing it apart, you are also ripping apart a Universe.

    I find it ironic that I found this article on

    • Andrew Palfreyman

      “Soon you will discover” eh Karen? Nice to meet somebody so scientifically savvy. Of course, you haven’t published a single peer-reviewed paper. Nor do you have any semblance of a scientific education. Do you read tea leaves, or is it strictly mantra chanting with you?

      • Karen Holmes

        Any subject can be approached from different perspectives. I am a theologian. Comparable to a PhD in theology. The Universe is another name for “All That Is.” Sometimes it is easier to explain something from another perspective.
        There is a God within a God within a God.

        Science is still looking for the Unified Field Theory, but Theology already found it.

    • Jonah

      I feel like you may be confused, sir.

    • Jonah

      *madam. (sorry)

    • Carlitos

      What you fail to realize is that at the quantum level strange and spooky things happen based upon the laws of physics. The fact that an atom was seemingly placed in two locations is permissable because the atom is in fact allowed to be in two places at the same time. This is a natural fact of nature and in no way represents a change in the physical properties of matter.

    • Carlitos

      I beg to differ! The study of physics with the aid of particle smashers has learned pletny about the nature of atoms and it’s constituent particles. They know that atoms have protons and nuetrons in the nucleus and that electons maintain an orbit around this nuceus. They know the charges of the particles and they know the next smaller level of quarks and gluons that make up these particles. I believe that you would benefit from reading up on the progress that has been made in particle physics.

    • Henry

      Excuse me Karen, but on what basis do you get the idea that each atom is its own universe, when you admit that it has not yet been determined? An atom is composed of sub particles, which are composed of either quarks, or an electron. These are by their very definition a single unit of matter. I don’t see how there could be a universe on them. In addition, the atom is not even being torn apart. It is being put in two places at once. A universe wouldn’t even be able to form given the properties of matter at that level, which makes it far too unstable.

      By the way, I seem to have a more well supported and thought out argument, and I am 15 years old.

      • Karen Holmes

        As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a theologian, and Truth is Truth. It is just a matter of perspective. I can speak of the Universe from the perspective of “All That Is, and there should be parallels between the two perspectives. Kind of like saying the same thing in two languages. Sometimes it is easier to explain something from another perspective.