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Scientists stoke Star Wars fans’ dreams of real lightsabers

A long time ago and a galaxy far away may be paving the road for discovery today.

In the quest to discover fundamental questions about the universe, scientists at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have stoked the dreams of Star Wars fans everywhere by coaxing photons — particles of light — to interact.

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Since 1977, when Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope debuted, lightsabers have been attracting would-be heros around the world and now science is providing them with a hope of their own.

“It’s the weapon of the Jedi. It’s a sword that’s made out of pure light,” said Andy Ricciardi, a founding owner of New Genesis Comics in Fort Collins.

The obstacle for building a light saber is that normally beams of light pass through each other without contact.

“Photons don’t normally interact, they go straight through one another,” said Dr. Bill Fairbank, a professor in the physics department at CSU.

The work done by researchers at Harvard and MIT suggests that light interacting with light may at least be plausible.

According to Dr. Jacob Roberts, professor in the department of physics at CSU, the researchers at MIT and Harvard passed light through an ultra cold gas and, in effect, created an interaction between photons that isn’t normally observed.

Even with the gas allowing photos to affect each other, many still discount the claim that this could lead to the construction of a lightsaber.

“The lightsaber connection, the idea of two patent pieces of light that can pass through each other and have force against each other — that is going on on a very small level here,” Roberts said.

He adds, however, that “you can’t build a lightsaber out of this at all because you have to have this ultracold gas around.”

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To put the lightsaber question to rest, Roberts, who does research on ultracold particles, explained that with the technology that currently exists, it is not yet possible.

“It’s always a little bit dangerous when you ask the question ‘is it impossible?’ That means that under every conceivable circumstance — including physics that we have not yet discovered — is there no way to do this? I’d say based on what we know now, theres no way to do it,” Roberts said.

Roberts said that the field this technology might actually be applicable in is quantum computing, but Fairbank, who does research on quantum computing, said it’s not clear how the research can be used.

“We don’t know yet what effects it will have,” Fairbank said.

On the subject of the Harvard-MIT research, Roberts admits that the interaction of light is truly novel.

“It’s still a neat scientific result. The fact that they created this spatially dependent photon-photon interaction is impressive,” Roberts said.

Even if it doesn’t lead to the invention of sci-fi weaponry, research for discovery’s sake can be a wonderful thing.

“Some people say that the most interesting thing to do is something that teaches you about nature at it’s most fundamental level,” Fairbank said. “We don’t know many times what will come of what we’re doing.”

Fairbank adds that discovery and practicality often inspire one another.

“When you’re doing something fundamental, in order to do that, you often create new practical things,” Fairbank said. “Similarly when you’re doing something practical, by accident you make a fundamental discovery.”

While Roberts does not aim to build a device with his research, he tries to push the understanding of a very fundamental branch of physics. He said pushing the limits is the best way to test understanding of something.

“Yes, you have this sort of general picture of how these things work,” Roberts said. “Now you’re going to go to the point where you’re going to break the assumptions and see what happens.”

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Remi Boudreau can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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