This week at UQ there was a fascinating Quantum Science Seminar by Jorg Schmiedmayer, describing some beautiful ultra cold atom experiments. Much of the talk is nicely discussed in a book chapter Does an isolated quantum system relax? [Answer is yes].
Some of the most recent results are in a Science paper, Experimental observation of a generalised Gibbs ensemble that appeared this month.
The experiments involve a one-dimensional Bose gas that can be described as a Luttinger liquid. This means that many properties, even non-equilibrium ones, can be calculated analytically and compared to experiment. This is a theorists dream!
Here are a few things that stood out.
Relaxation from a non-equilibrium state to the thermal equilibrium state occurs on several different time scales. First there is rapid relaxation to a "quasi-steady state" described by a Generalised Gibbs ensemble [This idea goes back to Jaynes] that involves an effective temperature [that one can even theoretically calculate in terms of the bose gas interaction strength].
There is a characteristic length scale associated with the relaxation.
One can even directly measure higher order correlation functions (4th, 6th and 10th order!), as seen below. Furthermore, in a Luttinger liquid [a non-interacting boson field theory] these should factorise in terms of the 2nd order correlation function [reflecting Wick's theorem]. One can even test this experimentally.
One can also simulate the sine Gordon theory and vary the coupling constant and so move through the associated phase transition.