Harvard/MIT Scientists Invent Light Sabers…Basically.

Star Wars Fans Hold on to your seats, because what I’m about to tell you is seriously cool. Scientists from Harvard and MIT have created a new form of matter that they are comparing to light sabers.

One of the lead researchers behind this discovery, Harvard Physicist Mikhail Lukin, said in a written statement “The physics of what’s happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.” Excuse me while my inner nerd jumps up and down with joy.

But what is happening, exactly?

Toy versions of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battle in this recreated scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Photo courtesy of JD Hancock, Flickr Creative Commons.

Toy versions of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battle in this recreated scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Photo courtesy of JD Hancock, Flickr Creative Commons.

Essentially, the researchers created an environment where mass-less photons (light particles) interact so strongly with one another that they act as though they have mass and bind together, forming molecules. But Lukin and his colleagues didn’t use the force to bind the photons together. No, they needed something more substantial.

The researchers pumped a rubidium (highly reactive metal) atom cloud into a vacuum, cooled it to just above absolute-zero, and fired two photons into the cloud using a weak laser. The photons emerged from the cloud stuck together thanks to what’s called the Rydberg blockade — an effect where one photon has to pass off its energy to an atom and move forward before a second photon can excite other nearby atoms. This results in the two photons pushing and pulling each other through the cloud, Lukin explained. “…when they exit the medium they’re much more likely to do so together than as single photons,” he said. The research was published in Nature online September, 25.

No word yet on the creation of real light sabers (one can only hope), but there are potential practical applications for this new discovery including quantum computing and the formation of 3-D structures completely out of light.

Originally published at Boston University News Service, October 2, 2013.

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