An artist's impression of SN 2006gyM, one of the brightest supernovas ever recorded. Photo: Weiss/NASA/CXC/Getty
Show Hide image

“Supernova in a bottle” will help create matter from light

The new process could provide a clean way of doing particle physics experiments.

In 1934, two physicists came up with a theory that described how to create matter from pure light. But they dismissed the idea of ever observing such a phenomenon in the laboratory because of the difficulties involved setting up such an experiment.

Now, Oliver Pike of Imperial College London and his colleagues have found a way to achieve this dream, 80 years after US physicists Gregory Breit and John Wheeler explained the theory. This group hopes to use high-energy lasers aimed at a specially designed gold vessel to convert photons into matter-antimatter particle pairs, recreating what happens in some exceptional stellar explosions.

Pike, who led the research published in the journal Nature Photonics, said, “The idea is that light goes in and matter comes out.” To be sure, the matter created won’t be every day-objects; instead the process will produce sub-atomic particles.

“To start with, the matter will consist of electrons and its antimatter equivalent positrons,” Pike said. “But with higher energy input in the lasers, we should be able to create heavier particles.”

Pike concedes this won’t be the first time light has been converted into matter. In 1997, US researchers at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre (SLAC) were able to do so, albeit in a different way.

The SLAC experiment used electrons to first create high-energy light particles, which then underwent multiple collisions to produce electrons and positrons, all within same chamber. This is called the multi-photon Breit-Wheeler process, named after the two physicists who came up with the theory in 1934.

“The key difference in the SLAC experiment and the one we propose is that our process will be more straightforward,” Pike said. In the new proposal, the laser beam will still be generated using free electrons, but it will be separated from the electrons.

Why create light using matter and then convert it back? Apart from showing that the Breit-Wheeler process can happen without the multiple photons the SLAC experiment needed, Pike thinks their process provides a clean way of doing particle physics experiments.

Current particle-physics experiments involve smashing sub-atomic particles at great speeds and sorting through the mess of new particles that are created in the explosion. This is how the Higgs boson was found in the Large Hadron Collider.

The new experimental design will be similar. Rather than involving a complicated mix of particles and photons, the laser beam will be sent into a small gold hohlraum (German for “empty room”). There, individual photons can interact with the radiation field that’s generated when the hohlraum is excited by a laser, creating the electron-positron pairs.

“While physicists have excellent methods to sift through such data, our process has the advantage that it will be easier to analyse,” Pike said. “Light will go in from one end of the hohlraum and particles created will come out from the other end.”

Pike and colleagues are now working to secure time on high-energy laser beams to carry out the experiment. The two likely candidates are Aldermaston, Berkshire in the UK or Rochester, New York in the US.

Andrei Seryi at the University of Oxford found the work interesting, but warned it is still too far away from being used in particle-physics experiments. “Theoretically, however, it would be great if we are able to create particles from only light.”

“With such high energy lasers, we may not need to build big particle colliders, such as the Large Hadron Collider, which is a 22km underground tunnel,” Seryi said.

Even if we do manage to create a photon collider, we would only be catching up with the natural world, where a specific type of supernova, called “pair instability,” involves the creation of proton-antiproton pairs. If Pike is able to achieve this phenomenon, he will essentially be creating a supernova in a bottle.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Show Hide image

The one where she turns into a USB stick: the worst uses of tech in films

The new film Worst Tinder Date Ever will join a long tradition of poorly-thought-through tech storylines.

News just in from Hollywood: someone is making a film about Tinder. What will they call it? Swipe Right, perhaps? I Super Like You? Some subtle allusion to the app’s small role in the plotline? Nope – according to Hollywood Reporterthe film has been christened Worst Tinder Date Ever.

With the exception of its heavily branded title (You’ve Got Gmail, anyone?), Worst Tinder Date Ever follows neatly in the tradition of writers manhandling tech into storylines. Because really, why does it matter if it was a Tinder date? This “rom com with action elements” reportedly focuses on the couple’s exploits after they meet on the app, so the dogged focus on it is presumably just a ploy to get millennial bums on cinema seats.  

Like the films on this list, it sounds like the tech in Worst Tinder Date Ever is just a byword for “modern and cool” – even as it demonstrates that the script is anything but.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Lucy (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who accidentally ingests large quantities of a new drug which promises to evolve your brain beyond normal human limits.

She evolves and evolves, gaining superhuman powers, until she hits peak human, and turns into first a supercomputer, and then a very long USB stick. USB-Lucy then texts Morgan Freeman's character on his fliphone to prove that: “I am everywhere.”

Beyond the obvious holes in this plotline (this wouldn’t happen if someone’s brain evolved; texting a phone is not a sign of omnipotence), USB sticks aren’t even that good – as Business Insider points out: “Flash drives are losing relevance because they can’t compete in speed and flexibility with cloud computing services . . . Flashdrives also can’t carry that much information.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If you stare at it hard enough, the plotline in the latest Star Wars film boils down to the following: a gaggle of people travels across space in order to find a map showing Luke Skywalker’s location, held on a memory stick in a drawer in a spherical robot. Yep, those pesky flash drives again.

It later turns out that the map is incomplete, and the rest of it is in the hands of another robot, R2-D2, who won’t wake up for most of the film in order to spit out the missing fragment. Between them, creator George Lucas and writer and director JJ Abrams have dreamed up a dark vision of the future in which robots can talk and make decisions, but can’t email you a map.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In which a scientist uses a computer to find the “precise location of the three remaining golden tickets sent out into the world by Willy Wonka. When he asks it to spill the beans, it announces: “I won’t tell, that would be cheating.


Image: Paramount Pictures. 

The film inhabits a world where artificial intelligence has been achieved, but no one has thought to pull Charlie's poor grandparents out of extreme poverty, or design a computer with more than three buttons.

Independence Day (1996)

When an alien invasion threatens Earth, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) manages to stop it by hacking the alien spaceship and installing a virus. Using his Mac. Amazing, really, that aliens from across the universe would somehow use computing systems so similar to our own. 

Skyfall (2012)

In the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, MI6’s “Q” character (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes a computer expert, rather than just a gadget wizard. Unfortunately, this heralded some truly cringeworthy moments of “hacking” and “coding” in both Skyfall and Spectre (2014).

In the former, Bond and Q puzzle over a screen filled with a large, complex, web shape. They eventually realise it’s a map of subterranean London, but then the words security breach flash up, along with a skull. File under “films which make up their own operating systems because a command prompt box on a Windows desktop looks too boring”.

An honourable mention: Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” (2009)

Not a movie, but how could we leave out a music video in which Kelly Rowland texts Nelly on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on a weird Nokia palm pilot?


Image: Vevo.

You’ll be waiting a long time for that response, Kelly. Try Tinder instead.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.