Dynamite with a laser beam: artist Yvette Mattern's Global Rainbow in Whitley Bay, 2012. Photo: Getty
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Firing lasers into a box made of gold – the race to turn light particles into matter

This could prove a neater way to investigate the fundamental building blocks of nature than examining the debris created by high-energy particle collisions.

By the time you read this, someone might already have done it. The publication of a report in May marked the beginning of the race to turn light into matter. Once the race is won, we could enter a new era in particle physics experiments but the real prize is far more valuable. This is about understanding the roots of our existence.

The idea of creating particles from light was dreamed up in 1934. The basic procedure is to smash together two photons, which are bundles of light energy. Calculations showed that, if done correctly, two particles of matter would magically appear in place of the light. The procedure invokes Albert Einstein’s equation E=mc2. The same equation lies behind the release of energy from nuclear fission. Not only do we now have atomic bombs but, it turns out, we also have the technology to take things in the opposite direction.

A team of physicists from Imperial College London has worked out the details. To collide photons to make matter, first fire a laser into an empty box made of gold. This creates a sea of photons with enormous amounts of energy. At the same time, accelerate a beam of electrons to nearly the speed of light using another high-power laser. Slam those electrons into a slab of gold and they will release a stream of photons to collide with the sea of photons in the gold box. The result will be the creation of electrons – one of the building blocks of matter – and positrons, the electron’s antimatter particle.

Now that it’s clear how to do it, there is little stopping scientists from performing this astonishing trick tomorrow. There are many facilities around the world that could string the various necessary technologies together.

What’s more, ramp up the energies of the lasers and it should eventually be possible to create bigger, heavier particles out of light. This could prove a neater way to investigate the fundamental building blocks of nature than examining the debris created by high-energy particle collisions in machines such as Cern’s Large Hadron Collider. Yet the big spin-off of such feats is in firing the imagination. This is science for the soul.

What this branch of physics teaches us is that our everyday intuition is not to be trusted. That matter and energy are two forms of the same stuff is entirely counter-intuitive. We have long given intellectual assent to the idea but it is so far removed from our day-to-day experience of the world that it may always seem implausible.

This interplay of light and matter is the rock on which the modern world is built. The silicon microchips in your smartphone and your laptop – maybe even your toaster – rely on the fluidity of matter. The microscopic electrical switches they contain work only because electrons are both matter and energy, flowing from one existence to the other as circumstances dictate.

Equally, we are solidly matter in our experience, yet we now know that we are made of stuff that can, in the right circumstances, be transformed into flashes of energy. That energy could, given sufficiently advanced technology, be turned back into us.

In some ways, it is a lesson about our impermanence but it is also a glimpse of our extraordinary gifts. We are matter that began its existence 14 billion years ago as a flash of primordial light. And now, that matter has learned the first step in repeating the process of its creation. For all the conflicts, disasters and alarming election results that human beings generate, we should still be proud of our species.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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An antibiotic-resistant superbug is silently spreading through UK hospitals

There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Edinburgh, and Birmingham, but deaths are not centrally recorded. 

Lying in a hospital bed, four months pregnant, Emily Morris felt only terror. She had caught a urinary tract infection and it was resistant to common antibiotics. Doctors needed to treat it as it could harm the baby, but the only drugs that could work hadn’t been tested on pregnant women before; the risks were unknown. Overwhelmed, Emily and her husband were asked to make a decision. A few hours later, gripping each other’s arms, they decided she should be given the drugs.

In Emily’s case, the medicine worked and her son Emerson (pictured below with Emily) was born healthy. But rising antibiotic resistance means people are now suffering infections for which there is no cure. Doctors have long warned that decades of reliance on these drugs will lead to a "post-antibiotic era"– a return to time where a scratch could kill and common operations are too risky.

It sounds like hyperbole – but this is already a reality in the UK. In the last four years 25 patients have suffered infections immune to all the antibiotics Public Health England tests for in its central lab, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has discovered.

While these cases are rare, reports of a highly resistant superbug are rising, and infection control doctors are worried. Carbapenem resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are not only difficult to pronounce, but deadly. These are bugs that live in the human gut but can cause an infection if they get into the wrong place, like the urinary tract or a wound. They have evolved to become immune to most classes of antibiotics – so if someone does become infected, there are only a few drugs that will still work. If CRE bacteria get into the bloodstream, studies show between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of people die.

These bugs are causing huge problems in India, certain parts of Asia, the Middle East and some countries in southern Europe. Until recently, most infections were seen in people who had travelled abroad, had family members who had, or had been in a foreign hospital. The boom in cheap cosmetic surgery in India was blamed for a spate of infections in Britain.

Now, doctors are finding people who have never boarded a plane are carrying the bug. There have already been outbreaks in Manchester, London, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Nottingham, Belfast, Dublin and Limerick among other areas. Patients found with CRE have to be treated in side rooms in hospital so the bacteria does not spread and harm other vulnerable patients. But in many of Britain’s Victorian-built hospitals, single rooms are in sparse supply. Deaths from CRE aren’t centrally recorded by the government - but it is thought hundreds have already died. 

Across the country, doctors are being forced to reach for older, more toxic drugs to treat these infections. The amount of colistin – called the "last hope" antibiotic as it is one of few options still effective against CRE infections - rose dramatically in English hospitals between 2014 and 2015, the Bureau has revealed. Colistin was taken off the shelves soon after it was introduced, as it can harm the kidneys and nervous system in high doses, but was reintroduced when infections became immune to standard treatment. The more we use colistin the more bacteria develop resistance to it. It’s only a matter of time before it stops working too, leaving doctors’ arsenal near-empty when it comes to the most dangerous superbug infections.

Due to a kidney problem, Emily Morris suffers repeat urinary tract infections and has to be hospitalised most months. Her son Emerson comes to visit her, understanding his mummy is ill. If she catches a superbug infection, she can still be given intravenous antibiotics to stem it. But she worries about her son. By the time he is an adult, if he gets ill, there may be no drugs left that work.

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism