MRI imaging, which is the medical use of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, is an important diagnostic tool. MRI works by resonantly exciting hydrogen atoms and measuring the relaxation time — different materials and substances return to equilibrium at different rates; this being the manner by which contrast develops between different forms of tissue.

‘Spin’ models are a vital mathematical representation of numerous physical phenomena including magnetism. Here, the team implements an Ising spin model, which has two central features. The spins themselves have only two options for orientation (“up” or “down”), and the interactions happen between pairs of spins, much like the interaction between bar magnets. The Ising model can be generalized to many seemingly disparate systems where there are binary choices. For instance, this model was used to study how ideas spread through social networks. In this application, spin-spin interactions represented connections between people in a network, analogous to interaction energies between magnetic spins. Here, the extent of the human connection affected how opinions spread through a social network population.

Back in the quantum laboratory, physicists have the ability to precisely study and calculate everything about a single or a small collection of essentially “textbook” spin particles within various physical platforms. Yet gaining a complete understanding of the behavior of many interacting spins is a daunting task, for both experimentalists and theorists. Ion traps are a leader in experimental studies of quantum physics, and thus well-poised for tackling this challenge.

The sheer numbers involved in large spin systems give insight into the difficulty of studying them. Consider that for N number of particles there are N(N-1)/2 two-body interactions. The interactions give rise to an energy spectrum containing 2N individual spin configurations. Here, the team does a complete analysis with 5 spins, and so there are 10 two-body interactions and 32 different spin chain configurations. Conventional computers can work with these modest numbers, but for as few as 30 spins the number of states pushes past a billion, which begins to be prohibitively complicated, particularly when the 435 separate interactions are all distinct. Physicists hope that quantum simulators can help bridge this gap.