Scientists achieve the 'impossible,' turn light into matter
The breakthrough discovery, deemed 'impossible' 80 years ago, utilizes a relatively simple technique.
Mon, May 19, 2014 at 06:21 PM
Riddle me this: What do you get when you put three physicists and several cups of coffee in a room together for a day? If you guessed "a simple, ingenious way to turn light into matter," take a bow.
Yes, that's right. It took three physicists from the Imperial College London's Blackett Physics Laboratory less than a day of coffee-inspired theorizing to solve an 80-year-old problem that was once deemed "impossible," reports Science Daily.
The story begins way back in 1934, when U.S. scientists Gregory Breit and John Wheeler first proposed the simplest method ever devised for turning light into matter. They proved the feat could be accomplished by smashing together two photons to create an electron and a positron. Although their calculation was shown to be theoretically sound, the two scientists never thought anyone would physically demonstrate their experiment. They even suggested such a feat might be impossible.
For the last 80 years, that prediction has held up. Light has yet to be observed turning into matter in the laboratory, and past experiments to test it have required the addition of massive high-energy particles.
But breakthrough new research, led by researcher Oliver Pike and recently published in Nature Photonics, promises to be a game-changer. Pike and colleagues have devised a relatively simple machine called a "photon-photon collider" that can be constructed using technology that is available today.
"Despite all physicists accepting the theory to be true, when Breit and Wheeler first proposed the theory, they said that they never expected it be shown in the laboratory. Today, nearly 80 years later, we prove them wrong," said Professor Steve Rose of the Department of Physics at Imperial College London.
The collider experiment involves two key stages. First, an extremely powerful high-intensity laser would be used to speed up electrons to just below the speed of light. The electrons would then be fired into a slab of gold to create a beam of photons a billion times more energetic than visible light. In essence, they are creating the process that occurred during the Big Bang, but in a lab setting, according to The Atlantic.
The next stage would involve a tiny gold can called a hohlraum (which is German for "empty room"). By firing a high-energy laser at the inner surface of the hohlraum, a thermal radiation field can be generated, creating light similar to the light emitted by stars. Scientists can then direct the photon beam from the first stage of the experiment through the center of the can, which would cause the photons from the two sources to collide, thus forming electrons and positrons (i.e., matter).
Now that the experiment has been devised, scientists just need to carry it out. It should only be a short matter of time, seeing as the process is a relatively simple one to complete.
"The race to carry out and complete the experiment is on!" declared Pike.
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