Scientists at Harvard have made photons of light behave like solid molecules, paving the way for advances in quantum computing and, well, lightsabers.

Yes, you read that correctly, lightsabers may actually be possible.

We're not talking about recent 'real' lightsabers that look authentic or burn through objects, but which would make for a very disappointing duel.

No, these lightsabers would actually bounce off each other.

The tantalizing possibility is the result of the work of a group headed by Harvard physics professor Mikhail Lukin and MIT physics professor Vladan Vuletic. In a new paper published in Nature titled "Attractive Photons In A Quantum Nonlinear Medium," the scientists detail how they made photons form molecules.

Photons, the particles which make up light, are in most cases massless and easily pass through each other. But the Harvard/MIT group was able to use a vacuum chamber, laser beams and a cloud of rubidium atoms cooled to near absolute zero to make photons behave very different.

"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 in a press release.

"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."

If you think this sounds nothing like a lightsaber, you would be wrong.

"It's not an in-apt analogy to compare this to lightsabers," Lukin said. "When these photons interact with each other, they pushing against and deflecting each other. The physics of what's happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies."

Let's just say that while this opens the door to real lightsabers, the current method of making light behave like a solid is exceedingly complex.

Two photons are shot into the super-cooled cloud of rubidium and because of an effect known as the Rydberg blockade they move through it together, behaving like a molecule.

The scientists say their research will be most useful in constructing quantum computers. This is important because scientists can already predict that makers of computer microprocessors will soon hit certain physical limits which will make it impossible to continue increasing computational power.

A quantum computer will use weird effects from the world of the very small, such as a superposition and entanglement, to make calculations and previously unheard of speeds.

In order to do this, however, individual quanta of photons will have to interact with each other, something which the MIT and Harvard group has now proved to be possible.

But while the focus is on computing, Lukin believes it may one day be possible to create solid objects out of light.


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