Many-body physics describes phenomena that cannot be understood by looking only at the constituents of a system1. Striking examples are broken symmetry, phase transitions and collective excitations2. To understand how such collective behaviour emerges as a system is gradually assembled from individual particles has been a goal in atomic, nuclear and solid-state physics for decades3–6. Here we observe the few-body precursor of a quantum phase transition from a normal to a superfluid phase. The transition is signalled by the softening of the mode associated with amplitude vibrations of the order parameter, usually referred to as a Higgs mode7. We achieve fine control over ultracold fermions confined to two-dimensional harmonic potentials and prepare closed-shell configurations of 2, 6 and 12 fermionic atoms in the ground state with high fidelity. Spectroscopy is then performed on our mesoscopic system while tuning the pair energy from zero to a value larger than the shell spacing. Using full atom counting statistics, we find the lowest resonance to consist of coherently excited pairs only. The distinct non-monotonic interaction dependence of this many-body excitation, combined with comparison with numerical calculations allows us to identify it as the precursor of the Higgs mode. Our atomic simulator provides a way to study the emergence of collective phenomena and the thermodynamic limit, particle by particle.
Subject classification (UKÄ)
- Physical Sciences