The resonant interaction of optical radiation with atomic vapors can excite the atoms into anisotropic states with long lifetimes. The conventional description of these states uses an expansion in a basis of multipole moments, which are represented by irreducible tensor operators. We demonstrate an experimental method that permits the excitation of these atomic multipole moments in specific, experimentally controllable spatial orientations. Complementary optical methods permit the observation of multipole moments of arbitrary order and a direct measurement of their spatial orientation. We demonstrate these procedures in the ground state of atomic sodium, using optical pumping to polarize the angular-momentum substates. We show how the experimental results can be used to separate signal contributions that originate from different multipole moments.
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