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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The fictional lightsabers from Star Wars many have daydreamed about may soon find their place in reality.
A team of scientists from Harvard and MIT said they found a way to bind light together, creating a new type of matter. The findings go against what scientists previously believed possible.
"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 Harvard professor of physics Mikhail Lukin 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."
The result is a form of matter the acts similar to lightsabers found in the movie realm.
"It's not an in-apt analogy to compare this to light sabers," Lukin said. "When these photons interact with each other, they're pushing against and deflect each other. The physics of what's happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies."
Researchers at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms said they conducted the research for fun and were surprised by the results. Their findings were documented in the science journal Nature on Sept. 25.
They said they fired two photons into a cloud of cold atoms using a weak laser, and when the photons emerged on the other side they did so as a single molecule.
The technology may turn out to be useful for things other than intergalactic wars. Lukin said it could prove especially helpful for computing technology.
"We do this for fun, and because we're pushing the frontiers of science," Lukin said. "But it feeds into the bigger picture of what we're doing because photons remain the best possible means to carry quantum information. The handicap, though, has been that photons don't interact with each other."
Lukin said it might be possible that someday the technology could even be used to create three-dimensional objects out of light, like crystals.
"What it will be useful for we don't know yet, 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," he said.
In the meantime, movie fans can enjoy knowing there is new science behind one of their favorite toys.