The Force: Coming to select retailers near you … someday

Lightsabers may no longer be a figment of George Lucas’ imagination. Harvard physics professor Mikhail Lukin and MIT physics professor Vladan Vuletić are the closest yet to making the Lightsaber — a laser beam-bladed sword and every Star Wars fan’s weapon of choice — a reality. If the research produces tangible results, they will look and feel nothing like the light-up plastic versions sold nationally in toy sections; Lukin and Vuletić are working on the real deal.

Within the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms, Lukin and Vuletić have been conducting a highly isolated experiment in which they’ve bombarded super-cooled clouds of matter with a photon stream, causing the photons to bind together in a molecular manner.

For those of you that don’t know, photons have traditionally been defined as the basic, elementary mass-less particles of light that exist independently of each other. They curiously behave as both waves and particles, a concept proposed by Albert Einstein in his Quantum Theory of Light. The key point to the experiment is that photons have the capacity to enter into what is called a “photonic-bound state,” a rarely observed theoretical condition upon which Lukin and Vuletić based their research.

“Photons have long been described as mass-less particles that don’t interact with each other. Shine two laser beams at each other and they simply pass through one another,” Dr. Lukin said.

The Harvard Crimson website mentioned that researchers found that the photon light elements could be “manipulated into acting as if they had mass” after they had been subject to the super-cooled cloud of matter. It would appear that the photons entered the bound state upon encountering their target.

The result? A malleable aggregation of light quanta-trapped within the designated particle cloud.

The research team headed by Lukin and Vuletić continue to capitalize on the photonic ability to enter into a bound state and are attempting to create units of “colliding beams of light,” similar to those employed by the Jedi and Sith (members of the dark force) in the Star Wars Saga.

Though the development of a real-life lightsaber is still in the distant future, Star Wars fanatics can rest assured that these fantastical physical properties of photons aren’t limited to our favorite galaxy far, far away.

 

EMILY SEFEROVICH can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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