Ever since Einstein demonstrated that spontaneous emission must occur if matter and radiation are to achieve thermal equilibrium, physicists have generally believed that excited atoms inevitably radiate. Spontaneous emission is so fundamental that it is usually regarded as an inherent property of matter. This view, however, overlooks the fact that spontaneous emission is not a property of an isolated atom but of an atom‐vacuum system. The most distinctive feature of such emission, irreversibility, comes about because an infinity of vacuum states is available to the radiated photon. If these states are modified—for instance, by placing the excited atom between mirrors or in a cavity—spontaneous emission can be greatly inhibited or enhanced.
A new generation of experiments shows that spontaneous radiation from excited atoms can be greatly suppressed or enhanced by placing the atoms between mirrors or in cavities.