Quantized sound waves—phonons—govern the elastic response of crystalline materials, and also play an integral part in determining their thermodynamic properties and electrical response (for example, by binding electrons into superconducting Cooper pairs)1–3. The physics of lattice phonons and elasticity is absent in simulators of quantum solids constructed of neutral atoms in periodic light potentials: unlike real solids, traditional optical lattices are silent because they are infinitely stiff4. Optical-lattice realizations of crystals therefore lack some of the central dynamical degrees of freedom that determine the low-temperature properties of real materials. Here, we create an optical lattice with phonon modes using a Bose–Einstein condensate (BEC) coupled to a confocal optical resonator. Playing the role of an active quantum gas microscope, the multimode cavity QED system both images the phonons and induces the crystallization that supports phonons via short-range, photon-mediated atom–atom interactions. Dynamical susceptibility measurements reveal the phonon dispersion relation, showing that these collective excitations exhibit a sound speed dependent on the BEC–photon coupling strength. Our results pave the way for exploring the rich physics of elasticity in quantum solids, ranging from quantum melting transitions5 to exotic ‘fractonic’ topological defects6 in the quantum regime.
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