Light Molecules (And Maybe Light Sabers, Someday)

A team that included theoretical physicists from JQI and NIST has been building objects out of photons. Their findings may indicate that weightless particles of light can be joined into a sort of “molecule” with its own peculiar force. (Did someone mention The Force? Read on.)


(Coulomb bound states of strongly interacting photons)
Two photons, depicted as wave packets (left and right), can be locked together at a short distance. Under certain conditions, the photons can form a state resembling a two-atom molecule, represented as the blue dumbbell shape at center. (Image: E. Edwards/JQI)

Now, in a paper forthcoming in Physical Review Letters ("Coulomb bound states of strongly interacting photons"), the team has showed theoretically that by tweaking a few parameters of the binding process, photons could travel side by side, a specific distance from each other. The arrangement is akin to the way that two hydrogen atoms sit next to each other in a hydrogen molecule.

“It’s not a molecule per se, but you can imagine it as having a similar kind of structure,” says JQI Fellow Alexey Gorshkov. “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."

John W. Campbell wrote about a similar idea in his 1930 classic The Black Star Passes; he called it Lux:

“Either that,” returned Arcot, “or proof of an amazing degree of technological advancement. It's only a guess, of course—but I have an idea where this kind of matter exists in the solar system. I think you have already seen it—in the gaseous state. You remember, of course, that the Kaxorians had great reservoirs for storing light-energy in a bound state in their giant planes. They had bound light, light held by the gravitational attraction for itself, after condensing it in their apparatus, but they had what amounted to a gas—gaseous light. Now suppose that someone makes a light condenser even more powerful than the one the Kaxorians used, a condenser that forces the light so close to itself, increases its density, till the photons hold each other permanently, and the substance becomes solid. It will be matter, matter made of light—light matter—and let us call it a metal. You know that ordinary matter is electricity matter, and electricity matter metals conduct electricity readily. Now why shouldn't our 'light matter' metal conduct light? It would be a wonderful substance for windows.”

Via Nanowerk.

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