Obi-Wan Might Appreciate This Newly Discovered Material

Scientists have succeeded in creating conditions that cause photons, which don't have mass, to behave like molecules, which do. The interactions between them resemble those that might happen with two lightsabers, and could help advance quantum computing.

What's the Latest Development?


Scientists at the intriguingly-named Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms have succeeded in creating a new type of material -- "photonic molecules" -- that up until now existed only in theory. They did this by shooting photons into a cloud of atoms cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero. As each single photon traveled through, it created energy that was passed on from atom to atom and exited with the photon. However, when two photons entered, an energy-restricting phenomenon caused them to push and pull each other through the cloud, an interaction that resulted in them exiting the cloud together as a single "molecule."

What's the Big Idea?

Lacking mass, photons don't normally interact with each other. However, the conditions created by the team caused them "to act as though they have mass, and they bind together to form molecules," says team leader and Harvard physics professor Mikhail Lukin. Also, the fact that they deflect each other invites a comparison to "Star Wars"-style lightsabers in combat, he says. The experiment -- details of which are published in the latest issue of Nature -- represent an important step towards building quantum computers, since "photons remain the best possible means to carry quantum information."

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

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