Attention all Jedi: New state of matter may make the lightsaber a reality

Scott Sutherland

Have you ever wished that lightsabers were real? I know I have! Well, we may be a step closer to actually making them a reality after scientists discovered a new state of matter called 'photonic molecules'.

Although it hasn't been the only problem keeping us from this fantastical piece of technology, one of the biggest problems with developing lightsabers was that photons — the tiny, massless particles of light — don't interact with each other. Other types of particles can be arranged to form atoms and molecules, but photons just whiz around on their own. Until now, that is.

It was a team of physicists at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms that made this new discovery, just while having a bit of fun, by shooting photons through a super-cooled cloud of rubidium atoms. When the photons went into the cloud they were your normal, everyday particles of light. However, as they passed through the cloud, they experienced an effect that forces the photons to push and pull at each other as they made their way past all the atoms.

"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," said Mikhail Lukin, a professor of physics at Harvard University, according to a statement. "This type of photonic bound state has been discussed theoretically for quite a while, but until now it hadn't been observed."

[ More Geekquinox: Red Planet dilemma: What will we do if astronauts get sick on Mars? ]

Now, given the fact that lightsabers are dangerous weapons and we don't (yet?) know how to use the Force to properly use them, it's doubtful that we'll actually be seeing them available anytime soon. However, this discovery should have its practical uses, for things like quantum computing and the researchers think that it could even be used to make things, like crystals, entirely from light.

"What it will be useful for we don't know yet," said Lukin, "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."

(Photo courtesy: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!