Scientists getting closer to building Star Wars-like lightsabers

All right all you Star Wars fans, the day you’ve been long waiting for may be within sight.

Admit it, you have pretended to slay the villains with a lightsaber, making that vuuuummmm whhhnnnn sound. Do you still have a plastic toy lightsaber stashed in the back of a closet? Do you get a little too psyched when your kids want you to play with theirs?

If any of that is true, this news is for you.

A team of physicists from MIT and Harvard have teamed up to study light and challenge accepted theories about it. In the process, they’ve come to understand the physics of lightsabers.

OK, they haven’t actually built a lightsaber, made famous as the weapon of choice for Jedi Knights in the Star Wars franchise, yet. But this is a big step toward the day when they can.


Let me try to break it down for you.

Photons, which are the fundamental particles of light, have long been thought to not be able to interact with each other. Wave two laser beams at each other and they’ll simply pass through each other.

No vuuuummmm. No whhhnnnn. No clashing weapons.

However, this group of scientists from the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms have figured out how to coax photons to bind together to form molecules that behave less like light and more like lightsabers.

“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,” said Mikhail Lukin, a professor of physics at Harvard, in a statement. “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.”

Scientists had theorized about this for a while, noted Lukin. This, though, is the first time they’ve been able to observe it.

“It’s not an inapt analogy to compare this to light sabers,” he added. “When these photons interact with each other, they’re pushing against and deflecting each other. The physics of what’s happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.”

So how did scientists make this happen? It would be so much fun to say the Force was with them. Sadly no.

Instead, they pumped rubidium atoms into a vacuum chamber, then used lasers to cool the cloud of atoms to just a few degrees above absolute zero, Harvard explained. They then shot single photons into the atom cloud.

The photons, shooting through the cloud, affect the atoms it touches, causing them to slow dramatically. That energy is passed from atom to atom.

And when scientists fired two photons into the cloud, they exited it as a single molecule, according to Harvard.

While working on someday building a lightsaber is a lot of fun, the research also has some potential applications in the computer science field.

Lukin said the work could affect the way they build quantum computers or how chip makers deal with power-dissipation challenges.

“What it will be useful for we don’t know yet,” he added. “But it’s a new state of matter, so we are hopeful that new applications may emerge as we continue to investigate these photonic molecules’ properties.”

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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