Part of the laser system Hau uses to suspend atoms in her lab at Harvard University
(courtesy Harvard Public Affairs & Communications)
SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t listened to our Speed show, then I’d suggest you do that right now, before you read any further, because I'm about to sucker punch you with behind-the-scenes knowledge of our “Master of the Universe” segment, and I don’t want to ruin the story for you…
Alright, you’ve been warned.
We recently got curious about what happens when you make things really really really cold. And we started getting interested in how you can wind up with these supercooled substances, where individual atoms begin to act like one another -- as if many, many atoms were just one atom. And then Robert hit the supercooled jackpot: he found a scientist who had created one of these super slow states (the coldest stuff ever in the universe it turns out)… and then used it to slow, and eventually stop, the fastest stuff in the universe: light.
Lene Vestergaard Hau -- this physicist who makes Zeus mythology a reality* -- blew our minds. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get out to Massachusetts to see her light-stopping skills in action, but Harvard was nice enough to send along some behind-the-scene shots and video from Lene's lab. The video below (apologies for the warbly sound, but the images are worth it), is a bit of a crash course on Lene's work, and Lene herself seems baffled by what she's done: "This is weird, this is really weird..." The first thirty seconds nicely show you the glow and hum of the lasers in the lab, emitting a warm, orangey-yellow light, evocative of a room full of candles.
Here's a still shot of those lasers you see (and hear) shooting:
All those lasers take a lot of wiring to run:
One thing we don't get into in the show, but which Lene mentions in the video above, is the real-world applications of her work. Now, stay with me here, but the way the internet works today is that the information -- say, when you Google the latest Tina Fey movie trailer -- is brought to you through fiber optic cables. In other words, that information is transported to you as light. Lene says that if light can be changed into matter, then changed back into light, as her lab has shown, there's the potential to revolutionize information systems. For one thing, you could encrypt information in an interesting way; you could actually change its shape as it travels, so it's harder to identify, easier to hide.
If you got all that, then allow me to tell you the other, "Whhaaaaaa??" moment we had (there were many), though it's slightly less "applicable." As our show and this blog points out, Lene's team has shown it's possible to go from light-to-matter-to-light. Does the light-matter-light transition remind you of anything? I'll tell you what it should: light-matter-light is a move that is the reverse of teleportation. So, you know "Beam me up, Scotty"? (Yes, we're talking Star Trek here.) Lene has demonstrated that concept in reverse. Which indicates to her that teleportation is achievable. Like, soon.
As we reported and produced this piece, I just kept imagining Lene boldly saying, "Light? I laugh in the face of light! Ha! Ha! Ha!" But ultimately, she reveres it. It seems to be a poetic, potentially world-changing fascination.
Here's another video produced by Harvard... it's a bit more of the same (with better audio), but I like 17 seconds in, when they start showing a schematic of light traveling through the Bose-Einstein Condensate versus light traveling outside of it. And then, 1:22-2:00 rocks, because you really get to see the lasers glowing...
* Zeus is the Greek god who controls, grabs, shapes, and hurls lightning bolts...until we met Lene, he was the only guy we knew who could control light...
Best described as someone who likes to "sit in the woods and stare," Molly fell for science in the ponds, wildlife, and fields of Ohio. After focusing on biology in college, she began to pursue science journalism, and has written and produced (radio/podcasts) for outlets like Scientific American, Wired, Nature, NPR's Science Friday, and National Geographic Adventure, as well as created live conversations at the World Science Festival, where she specialized in creating programs at the intersection of science, philosophy, and art. Her ability to comprehend and totally immerse herself in complicated issues has helped Radiolab investigate blood donation, drug prices, and one very special jar. She also had a hand in the pilot of Freakonomics Radio, where you can still hear her voice at the top of every episode.