The universe is illuminated via photons, the tiny individual particles that make up light, but they don’t interact with each other. To make them see the light, a team of University of Chicago physicists built a trap to help photons bounce off each other.
Their photon collider, described in the March 19 edition of Nature Physics, is the latest effort to make photons behave like other particles such as electrons—a step toward greater understanding and control of quantum systems, which may one day manifest as technology with new properties.
Quantum systems behave according to the strange laws that govern the smallest particles in the universe, like electrons. Scientists are increasingly interested in exploring new ways to harness the particles’ odd behaviors, like being in two states at once, and then choosing one only when measured.
Jonathan Simon, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Physics and the James Franck Institute, is interested in how walls dividing matter and light begin to break down at this scale. Most electronic systems use electrons as the moving parts, but photons can display quantum properties just as easily as electrons—and photons’ quirks could both offer advantages as technologies and serve as models to understand the more slippery electrons. So his team wants to manipulate and stack photons to build matter out of light.