After Lightsabers: What-If Applications of Photonic Molecules

Soon, mate, that might be you.

I know lightsabers, you know lightsabers. Everyone knows lightsabers, or at least has heard about Star Wars, George Lucas and the famous “I am your father” line.

Now, you might’ve heard that, a few months ago, a few scientists from Harvard and MIT have accidentally invented what potentially can be lightsabers. (See: http://goo.gl/mnxe0W) When introducing their “photonic molecules” to general public — an entirely new matter, it is said, made of light and rubidium atoms, the same chemical element used to make fireworks purple — the scientist said how these molecules can interact and deflect each other, not unlike what we see in the big screen.

Ordinary light can’t do this — if you light two torches crossroad-fashion, for example, the two light beams will go through each other as if it’s not there. But photonic molecules have a certain degree of solidness, thanks to the rubidium atoms, and this makes them into a light that can be touched.

But the one question people have asked — besides when we can get our hands on these lightsabers — is how we can use this new matter in a more practical way. Sure, these molecules will make pretty trinkets for when the new Star Wars instalment is released in 2015, but when you get down to it, how often would we use these “lightsaber” trinkets? Why settle for trinkets when we can make, say, a new holographic communication device that enables us talk face-to-artificial-face? What other uses can we use this finding for?

Here’s a few ideas.

1. Cutting Implements

The most obvious one is cutting implements. After all, this new technology is compared to lightsabers, a futuristic weapon that’s said to be able to cut through (nearly) everything. But in real life, is it possible to use this new matter to cut stuffs?

The answer is — I don’t dare to say more than “maybe”. The scientists did say the photonic molecules can interact with each other, but I can’t find any confirmation on how they affect other matters. These molecules have substance, so it should be able to interact with other solid matters. But to what extent they can interact — right now, all I have is nothing but guesswork.

Also, although the scientists did say these molecules can deflect each other, “deflect something” is not the same with “cut”. It’s true that even now we have lasers that can seemingly cut through solid matters, but it doesn’t mean its application to these photonic molecules will be easy. How can we know this laser won’t “cut” through the rubidium medium first? Right now, I have no idea.

2. Hologram

Have you heard of Hatsune Miku? This Japanese virtual idol has her own concert where she appears as 3D holographic images and sings in a software-designed voice. It blows me how creative the producers have made use of holographic technology to create an idol, but it’s still far away from the holographic concepts we can find in many sci-fi movies, including Star Wars again.

Hatsune Miku depends on a dilad screen to appear as a life-size 3D hologram. But if we can tame the photonic molecules, we might be able to create a new form of hologram that doesn’t require any screen to operate.

But what makes me think this idea is possible? Well… for now, just call it an optimist’s thinking. These photonic molecules are made partly of light and partly of solid atoms. So, the optimist reasons, if we can control the movement of these atoms — for example, to resemble the face of a person — we might be able to have a 3D hologram that doesn’t need any screen for its realisation.

Yes, really.

Of course, right now there’s still many safety consideration — I don’t know what raw rubidium atoms do to human bodies — and maybe it’s still far away until we have the technology that allows the movement of these atoms. But if we can make it possible, the application will be limitless. We can have holographic communication that will replace voice calls and Skype’s face-to-screen chatting. Creating artworks made entirely of light are not impossible. And maybe we’ll have yet another virtual idol, and this time, we won’t need any dilad screen or mosquito net when going to her concert.

3. Computing

Ever since the finding of this “lightsaber” material, scientists have been pondering the possibility of its application in the development of quantum computing. But how does this finding relate to that?

To understand it, you’ll have to understand how quantum computers work — and there are tons of people out there more qualified than me to give you a lecture about it. For now, think of them as supercomputers that can process data not just using the basic two units of information, called bits (which is either 1 or 0), but with a bigger range of units of information, called qubits (including 0/0, 0/1, 1/0 and 1/1). To strip all the technical bits, quantum computers are many times stronger than your current computers. But scientists have always had difficulty in their development because “photons” — scientists’ way of saying “light”, which is chosen as the medium to carry quantum information — cannot interact with each other, even though their interaction is vital for the quantum computer processing. (See also: http://goo.gl/lsCDFf)

Now that we’ve found photon that can interact with each other, suddenly we have a whole new possibility for quantum computing.

What will you do when, years from now, quantum computers replace your home computers? Well, right now the possibility is limitless, so please please please don’t just use it for Microsoft Word and a game of Solitaire.

4. Sound (?)

This one is even more of a what-if than the others. And the only reason I put it here is… well, it just got me thinking.

Light travels faster than sound. The reason for this is the speed of light is still affected by the density of air in which it travels. Change the density and the speed of sound will change. Whereas light travels without being affected (or affected in microscopically small ways, I don’t know) by the density of air. Because sound needs molecules in the air to travel, while light doesn’t.

But, in the case of these photonic molecules, when light is projected into the cloud of rubidium atoms, the light, as the scientists put it, “excite” the atoms. “Excite” is a rather vague word, but it gives me an impression that these molecules can travel faster than ordinary atoms. If it’s really true, then when sound travels in these photonic molecules — if such thing is possible, anyway — can we create sound that travels faster than other sounds?

Of course, I don’t know how fast that is, or why we want to make a faster sound. Other elements in the air might also hinder the movement of these photonic molecules. Also, the current research has indicated that the light “slows down” when it enters the cloud of atoms, which means it won’t be as fast as the speed of light. But whether it’s still faster than ordinary sound — it’s still a question mark.

***

I’m not a scientists. I’m more of a journalist who’s interested in the future technology. So, what I write here is mostly a speculation, and I don’t have the means to prove whether it’s true or not.

Still, as the optimist would say: I can’t wait to see what else tomorrow will bring.

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