Molecules Made of Light May Bring Us Closer to Real-Life Lightsabers

Tuesday, 29 September 2015 - 5:21PM
Physics
Tuesday, 29 September 2015 - 5:21PM
Molecules Made of Light May Bring Us Closer to Real-Life Lightsabers
Scientists have long claimed that it is extremely difficult, if not completely impossible, to build a real-life light saber. There are several oft-cited obstacles, chief among them that light particles simply wouldn't stick together to form a sword. A real-life laser doesn't stop after approximately two feet, but continues indefinitely. But now, theoretical physicists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have discovered a mechanism that can bind photons together in a pseudo-molecule, possibly bringing us one step closer to real-life lightsabers.

Since photons don't have mass or charge, they don't traditionally bind together in any way. But in 2013, a team of researchers from Harvard, Caltech, and MIT bound two photons together by sending them through a special medium of cold rubidium gas that caused them to act like charged particles with mass. Now, by tweaking the process used in that experiment, the NIST researchers have discovered a way to clump photons together so they travel together at a specific distance from each other. 

Opening quote
"It's not a molecule per se, but you can imagine it as having a similar kind of structure," NIST's Alexey Gorshkov told Phys.org. "We're learning how to build complex states of light that, in turn, can be built into more complex objects. This is the first time anyone has shown how to bind two photons a finite distance apart."
Closing quote


Of course, binding photons into "complex objects" is still a long way from a real-life lightsaber, but maybe not as far away as we might think. When the 2013 study first came out, the co-authors explicitly stated that the mechanism by which the photons were bound to each other was not dissimilar to lightsabers:

Opening quote
"It's not an in-apt analogy to compare this to light sabers," said Harvard's Mikhail Lukin. "When these photons interact with each other, they're pushing against and deflect each other. The physics of what's happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies."
Closing quote


Of course, the photons need to be in a very specific environment to bind to each other; they're not actually interacting with each other, but rather interacting with the medium surrounding them. So unless we find some way to transport a mini-habitat filled with rubidium atoms, we're not going to be seeing lightsabers in the near future. But regardless, there are many practical applications to creating pseudo-molecules out of light, from computer technology to ultra-sensitive light sensors.

Opening quote
"Lots of modern technologies are based on light, from communication technology to high-definition imaging," said Gorshkov. "Many of them would be greatly improved if we could engineer interactions between photons."
Closing quote


Via Gizmodo
Science
Science of Sci-Fi
Physics

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