The description of irreversible phenomena is a still debated topic in quantum mechanics. Still nowadays, there is no clear procedure to distinguish the coupling with external baths from the intrinsic irreversibility in isolated systems. In 1928 Gamow introduced states with exponentially decaying observables not belonging to the conventional Hilbert space. These states are named Gamow vectors, and they belong to rigged Hilbert spaces. This review summarizes the contemporary approach using Gamow vectors and rigged Hilbert space formalism as foundations of a generalized “time asymmetric” quantum mechanics. We study the irreversible propagation of specific wave packets and show that the topic is surprisingly related to the problem of irreversibility of shock waves in classical nonlinear evolution. We specifically consider the applications in the field of nonlinear optics. We show that it is
possible to emulate irreversible quantum mechanical process by the nonlinear evolution of a laser beam and we provide experimental tests by the generation of dispersive shock waves in highly nonlocal regimes. We demonstrate experimentally the quantization of decay rates predicted by the time-asymmetric quantum mechanics. This work furnishes support to the idea of intrinsically irreversible wave propagation, and to novel tests of the foundations of quantum mechanics.