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Behind the Scenes: Master of the Universe

Tuesday, February 05, 2013 - 07:00 PM

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.


Not only is Lene’s work exciting, but she is one cool cat, too. Check out this New York Times profile.

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...

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Comments [10]

Al Vaikus from Mission Viejo, CA

In the subject of teleportation, I believe was meant objects for now, not living beings - that may come or not later.

Apr. 09 2014 04:41 PM
semadmin from CHINA

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Jul. 29 2013 11:46 PM
Ian from Tennessee

how would you not die during teleportation? Unless your whole body was sent at the same time (this sounds like you are sending each different entity of matter at a similar time) your body functions could not correlate, and you would cease to function.
Im no scientist and if you want to correct me you can

Mar. 06 2013 09:44 AM
Mike from Australia

Chris,

What could be implicit in that kind of analysis is that human beings are solely physical entities, and that consciousness itself arises from the parts. What if consciousness is just contained in our physical body? If we can accept that, then is there a reason that consciousness would not be stored with the stored physical information of our bodies? When we are reconstituted then perhaps consciousness takes up residence in the teleported/clone body.

Of course, the big problem would be proving it either way. You can't ask the clone - hey are you the guy we teleported? Because to them they will be. Unless the forward sympathy you talked about could be considered in reverse... somehow.

Feb. 22 2013 03:35 AM
Chris

Very cool. However human teleportation cannot ever be achieved even in principle. All that human teleportation could ever be (or the teleportation of any conscious entity) is your death, and the consequent reconstitution of a perfect clone of yourself who would believe he was you, and believe that the teleportation was a success. However, YOUR consciousness would end, and his would begin (complete with all your memories and the feeling that he was you)

If I told you that I was going to teleport you to Mars where upon you're arrival you would be brutally tortured, you would have no impending torture to fear having to endure. My might feel sorry for the cloned you though, who of course would experience it in exactly the same you would have had you flown to Mars in a spaceship rather than being teleported.

Derek Parfit has explored these ideas in depth.

Feb. 21 2013 01:20 PM
franklin from dallas, tx

What are the consequences for time in that moment/space? Does it stop also? Could you potentially reverse the beam of light?

I would REALLY like to hear THAT discussion with Dr. Hau!

REALLY, REALLY enjoyed this story. Thanks!

Feb. 17 2013 02:50 PM
Daniel Ayer from San Francisco

Hello,
I just listened to the podcast, and I have more than a few questions about this process. My understanding of how matter and light interact is that light can be absorbed by electrons within an atom. If the light has the right properties it can energize the electron and jump it into a new orbital. If I shine a beam of light into a cloud of atoms there will be some time of flight lost as the light is absorbed and re-emitted. Sort of like dropping a ball on a spring. The compression of the spring slows down the round trip time from my hand to the floor and back again.
If the sodium is in its ground state (the coldest it could be) then its electrons would jump into a more stable orbit than if the atoms were hotter. In other words, it would take longer for those elctrons to re-emit, or give up, their absorbed light. Is this what this process is doing?
To my mind this isn't really slowing down light. It's still really an amazing thing. If you think of it, it would be delaying light or trapping it with billions of tiny mirrors. Each atom's electrons closest to the light would act as a mirror. So, measuring the distance from where you make the light to where you detect it at the other end would not be the real path. The actual path would be all those little spaces between atoms as the light was absorbed and re-emitted, and absorbed and re-emitted, and so on. Though, an optical cage of this nature would still be amazing!
Am I off base here? Is something else happening? Is this the impression upon matter that was discussed? If this is so, I have one final question. Can this process grab all wavelengths of light, or merely those wavelengths that are absorbable by the sodium atom's outer most electrons in their ground state?
Thanks!

-Dan

Feb. 15 2013 01:38 PM
Zeev Kaspi from Gan Yavne, Israel

Another (potential) application is "Slow Glass" described in Bob Shaw's Science Fiction story "The Light of Other Days" - Analog, August 1966.

Feb. 09 2013 06:56 AM
smo from Brooklyn, NY

THIS SHOW IS SO AWESOME!!!

i kept waiting for you to start talking about teleportation because it was all i could think about at the end of the segment! This totally blows my mind! Thanks for bringing these experiments...to light!

Feb. 07 2013 12:50 PM
Warren from Work

Does time stand still inside the supercooled atom cloud? Since time is relative to the speed of light (considered a constant for our mortal purposes) and light is stopped and achieves a speed if zero inside the could does that mean that time stops with it?

Would that make this process a form of time machine on top of being a transporter? Think about it, if you keep that light locked up for 100 years in the atom cloud, where time is stopped by the very virtue of the light being stuck, and were to release it... Would it have jumped forward in the one hundred years?

Feb. 07 2013 12:12 AM

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