Star Wars Tech Becomes a Reality

Scientists over at MIT and Harvard have managed to bind photons together to create molecules resulting in a state of matter that was only a theory up until now.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when people start telling me that they can make shapes out of light, the only thing I want to know is when the heck I can get my light saber and how many of my children I need to trade to get it…

…the system might one day even be used to create complex 3-D structures (like sabers?) wholly out of light.

Sadly, it doesn’t work quite like that… at least not yet.

The group, led by Harvard physics professor Mikhail Lukin and MIT physics professor Vladan Vuletic made the discovery working with colleagues at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms.

Lukin said that the discovery runs contrary to accepted wisdom about the nature of light since photons have always been thought of as massless particles that don’t have the ability to interact with each other.

An example would be to cross two lasers and watch them pass through one another with no reaction.

“Photonic molecules,” as they’re being called, don’t seem to behave like traditional photons. Instead, they take on some much more exciting and, let’s face it, fun “sci-fi” properties.

To get the normally massless photons to bind to each other Lukin, and his colleagues couldn’t rely solely on the Force — they instead turned to a set of more extreme conditions.

Researchers began by pumping rubidium atoms into a void or vacuum. Then they used lasers to cool the cloud of atoms to just a few degrees above absolute zero, where pretty much everything starts acting funny. Then they fired single photons into the cloud of atoms using very weak lasers.

As the photon enters the cloud of cold atoms, its energy excites atoms along its path, causing the photon to slow dramatically. As the photon moves through the cloud, that energy is handed off from atom to atom, and eventually exits the cloud with the photon.

When Lukin and colleagues fired two photons into the cloud, they were surprised to see them exit together as a single molecule.

The reason they form the never-before-seen molecules?

An effect called a Rydberg blockade, which states that when an atom is excited, nearby atoms cannot be excited to the same degree.

In practice, the effect means that as two photons enter the atomic cloud, the first excites an atom, but must move forward before the second photon can excite nearby atoms.

The result is that the two photons push and pull each other through the cloud as their energy is handed off from one atom to the next.

While the effect is unusual, it does have some practical applications in the field of quantum computing since photons are much better carriers of information than materials currently being used in this technology.

Lukin also suggested that the system might one day even be used to create complex 3-D structures (like sabers?) wholly out of light.

The hope, obviously, is that as the technology advances and we are able to learn about the process and how it works, we can come up with even more practical applications for this exciting new outlook on light.

And if that frightening and awesome idea of a real lightsaber someday becomes a reality, I’ll be one of the first in line to collect.

After all, George Lucas made us all a promise of sorts, didn’t he?

Here’s to the future,

Patrick Copeland
for The Daily Reckoning

Ed. Note: Okay, so lightsabers may still be a ways off. But thanks to technological advancements, we can at least begin to think about these things becoming a reality. To get the latest news on the most exciting technology coming online – and how to make huge gains because of them – sign up for Tomorrow in Review. This free newsletter gets sent to your email inbox every day and provides you with the most up-to-date tech stories from around the globe… and gives you the opportunity to profit from them. Imagine if Wired Magazine offered you real actionable investment plays… That’s what Tomorrow in Review is. Don’t wait. Sign up for FREE, right here.

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