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We excite ultracold rubidium atoms in a magneto-optical trap to a coherent superposition of the three |mj | sublevels of the 37d5/2 Rydberg state. After some delay, during which the relative phases of the superposition components can evolve, we apply an electric field pulse to ionize the Rydberg electron and send it to a detector. The electron traverses many avoided crossings in the Stark levels as it ionizes. The net effect of the transitions at these crossings is to mix the amplitudes of the initial superposition into the same final states at ionization. Similar to a Mach-Zehnder interferometer, the three initial superposition components have multiple paths by which they can arrive at ionization and, since the phases of those paths differ, we observe quantum beats as a function of the delay time between excitation and initiation of the ionization pulse. We present a fully quantum-mechanical calculation of the electron’s path to ionization and the resulting interference pattern.


Originally published in Physical Review A, 92, 043412. Copyright 2015, American Physical Society.