Seeing is Believing: Direct Observation of a General Quantum State

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Central to quantum theory, the wavefunction is a complex distribution associated with a quantum system. Despite its fundamental role, it is typically introduced as an abstract element of the theory with no explicit definition. Rather, physicists come to a working understanding of it through its use to calculate measurement outcome probabilities through the Born Rule. Tomographic methods can reconstruct the wavefunction from measured probabilities. In contrast, I present a method to directly measure the wavefunction so that its real and imaginary components appear straight on our measurement apparatus. I will also present new work extending this concept to mixed quantum states. This extension directly measures a little-known proposal by Dirac for a classical analog to a quantum operator. Furthermore, it reveals that our direct measurement is a rigorous example of a quasi-probability phase-space (i.e. x,p) distribution that is closely related to the Q, P, and Wigner functions. Our direct measurement method gives the quantum state a plain and general meaning in terms of a specific set of simple operations in the lab.