Researchers get trapped photons to act like massive particles

John Timmer

Wikimedia Commons

A Bose-Einstein Condensate is a strange substance. When a set of appropriate particles are cooled so that they all occupy a ground state, they begin to exhibit wave-like properties that enable them to behave as a superfluid, moving without any turbulence or resistance. But getting enough particles, such as atoms, to occupy a single low-energy state requires that they be chilled down to a fraction of a Kelvin above absolute zero, which meant that the first observation of a BEC didn’t occur until 1995. Now, researchers have found a way to create a room-temperature BEC, but it required the use of unexpected material: light.

Light, which is constantly being absorbed, reflected, and re-emitted, isn’t the easiest thing to pin down. Getting a collection of photons to enter a single energy state is even harder. But a team of researchers at Germany’s Institut für Angewandte Physik figured out how to modify a well-known system—the laser—to force a large collection of photons into a sort of thermal equilibrium.

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