The lightsaber may be the most coveted sci-fi gadget in film history, and scientists from Harvard and MIT have taken a first step in achieving humanity’s collective dream of owning the mystical Jedi weapon.
In a paper recently published in Nature, leading scientists Mikhail Lukin and Vladan Vuletic bonded photons, the particles that make up light, to form molecules‚ a state of matter that had only previously been theorized. Photons have been described as massless particles, an idea that’s demonstrated whenever two sources of light pass through one another uninterrupted. However, the researchers noticed light was acting a little strangely under certain conditions they created in the lab.
To get photons to interact with one another, Lukin and Vuletic cooled a cloud of atoms to temperatures far colder than the surface of Hoth, to numbers approaching absolute zero. Then, after firing two solo photons into the cloud, the team noticed that the light reemerged as a pair. They observed that within the particle cloud, the photons noticed each other’s presence. Inside the medium there is a force that is making them behave like an atom, Lukin told Popular Mechanics.
“What [the lightsaber] analogy refers to is the physics of what is happening in our experiments,” he says. “In practice, if you take two lasers, or laser pointers, you can shine one beam at another and nothing happens. The reason why nothing happens is that photons don’t interact with each other; they don’t feel each other’s presence. In the experiment, however, the photons’ interactions are so strong that they form as molecules.” And Thibault Peyronel, a graduate student at MIT who worked on the project, says that even more complex structures, such as crystals formed from light, are possible.
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Republished with permission from Popular Mechanics. Originally published at http://www.popularmechanics.com.