Researchers at Princeton University have begun crystallizing light as part of an effort to answer fundamental questions about the physics of matter.
The researchers are not shining light through crystal – they are transforming light into crystal. As part of an effort to develop exotic materials such as room-temperature superconductors, the researchers have locked together photons, the basic element of light, so that they become fixed in place.
"It's something that we have never seen before," said Andrew Houck, an associate professor of electrical engineering and one of the researchers. "This is a new behavior for light."
The results raise intriguing possibilities for a variety of future materials. But the researchers also intend to use the method to address questions about the fundamental study of matter, a field called condensed matter physics.
"We are interested in exploring – and ultimately controlling and directing – the flow of energy at the atomic level," said Hakan Türeci, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and a member of the research team. "The goal is to better understand current materials and processes and to evaluate materials that we cannot yet create."
The team's findings, reported online on Sept. 8 in the journal Physical Review X, are part of an effort to answer fundamental questions about atomic behavior by creating a device that can simulate the behavior of subatomic particles. Such a tool could be an invaluable method for answering questions about atoms and molecules that are not answerable even with today's most advanced computers.
In part, that is because current computers operate under the rules of classical mechanics, which is a system that describes the everyday world containing things like bowling balls and planets. But the world of atoms and photons obeys the rules of quantum mechanics, which include a number of strange and very counterintuitive features. One of these odd properties is called "entanglement" in which multiple particles become linked and can affect each other over long distances.