Home Made Lightsaber?

Photons of light binding together to form molecules? Unusual research by Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuletic has led to the realization of a state of matter that was (until a few weeks ago) purely theoretical. Or should we say, "science-fictional"?

(Luke practices with the lightsaber and a seeker remote)

The discovery, Lukin said, runs contrary to decades of accepted wisdom about the nature of light. Photons have long been described as massless particles which don't interact with each other – shine two laser beams at each other, he said, and they simply pass through one another.

"Photonic molecules," however, behave less like traditional lasers and more like something you might find in science fiction – the lightsaber.

"Most of the properties of light we know about originate from the fact that photons are massless, and that they do not interact with each other," Lukin said. "What we have done is create a special type of medium in which photons interact with each other so strongly that they begin to act as though they have mass, and they bind together to form molecules. This type of photonic bound state has been discussed theoretically for quite a while, but until now it hadn't been observed.

Here's how George Lucas describes a lightsaber in his 1976 novel Star Wars:

It consisted primarily of a short, thick handgrip with a couple of small switches set into the grip. Above this small post was a circular metal disk barely larger in diameter than his spread palm. A number of unfamiliar, jewel like components were built into both handle and disk, including what looked like the smallest power cell Luke had ever seen...

Luke examined the controls on the handle, then tentatively touched a brightly colored button up near the mirrored pommel. Instantly the disk put forth a blue-white beam as thick around as his thumb. It was dense to the point of opacity and a little over a meter in length... Strangely, Luke felt no heat from it... He knew what a lightsaber could do, though he had never seen one before. It could drill a hole right through the rock wall of Kenobi's cave - or through a human being.

Update: Technovelgy reader icecycle has pointed out that sf legend John W. Campbell wrote about the idea of "solid light" long before George Lucas. The earliest reference I know is in Campbell's 1930 novel The Black Star Passes - see the article on lux. End update.

Via Physorg (paper in Nature); thanks to an anonymous reader for alerting me to this story (a few days ago - sorry, I'm a bit behind).

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/26/2013)

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