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Have scientists accidentally created a lightsaber? New form of matter discovered that has only ever been used in science-fiction

Scientists have accidentally discovered a completely new form of matter that works in the same way as the lightsabers used in Star Wars.

A team of physicists were messing around with photons when they managed to get the particles to stick together and form a molecule.

The molecule behaves, they claim, just like a lightsaber by moving the light particles around in a solid mass and is unlike any matter seen before.

The discovery, reported in Nature, was made by Harvard physics professor Mikhail Lukin and MIT physics professor Vladan Vuletic after they blasted photons through a cloud of rubidium atoms.

As the photons enter the cloud of cold atoms, Lukin said, its energy excites atoms along its path, causing the photon to slow dramatically.

As the photon moves through the cloud, that energy is handed off from atom to atom, and eventually exits the cloud with the photon.

‘It's the same effect we see with refraction of light in a water glass,’ Lukin explained.

‘The light enters the water, it hands off part of its energy to the medium, and inside it exists as light and matter coupled together, but when it exits, it's still light.’

‘The process that takes place is the same it's just a bit more extreme -- the light is slowed considerably, and a lot more energy is given away than during refraction.’

When they sent more than one photon simultaneously, they noticed that the particles clumped together to form a molecule Harvard and MIT claim the matter they created had, up until now, been purely theoretical and runs contrary to decades of accepted wisdom about the nature of light.

Photons have long been described as massless particles which don't interact with each other.

Shine two laser beams at each other and they simply pass through one another.

‘Photonic molecules,’ however, behave less like traditional lasers and more like a light saber.

‘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.’

In fact, what the scientists were witnessing is known as the Rydberg blockade.

This states that atoms neighboring an atom that's been excited—say, by a passing photon—cannot be excited to the same degree as the initial atom.

In practice, the effect means that as two photons enter the atomic cloud, the first excites an atom, but must move forward before the second photon can excite nearby atoms.

The result, he said, is that the two photons push and pull each other through the cloud as their energy is handed off from one atom to the next.

While the effect is unusual, it does have some practical applications as well.

‘It feeds into the bigger picture of what we're doing because photons remain the best possible means to carry quantum information,’ Lukin said.

‘The handicap, though, has been that photons don't interact with each other.’

To build a quantum computer, he explained, researchers need to build a system that can preserve quantum information, and process it using quantum logic operations.

The challenge, however, is that quantum logic requires interactions between individual quanta so that quantum systems can be switched to perform information processing.

‘What we demonstrate with this process allows us to do that,’ Lukin said.

‘Before we make a useful, practical quantum switch or photonic logic gate we have to improve the performance, so it's still at the proof-of-concept level, but this is an important step.’

The system could even be useful in classical computing, Lukin said, considering the power-dissipation challenges chip-makers now face.

A number of companies have worked to develop systems that rely on optical routers that convert light signals into electrical signals, but those systems face their own hurdles.

Lukin also suggested that the system might one day even be used to create complex three-dimensional structures -- such as crystals -- wholly out of light.

‘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. 

2013-09-27, The Daily Mail, Ellie Zolfagharifard.

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