Lene Hau has already shaken scientists’ beliefs about the nature of things. Albert Einstein and just about every other physicist insisted that light travels 186,000 miles a second in free space, and that it can’t be speeded-up or slowed down. But in 1998, Hau, for the first time in history, slowed light to 38 miles an hour, about the speed of rush-hour traffic.
Two years later, she brought light to a complete halt in a cloud of ultracold atoms. Next, she restarted the stalled light without changing any of its characteristics, and sent it on its way.
Now Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics, Hau has done it again. She and her team made a light pulse disappear from one cold cloud then retrieved it from another cloud nearby. In the process, light was converted into matter then back into light. For the first time in history, this gives science a way to control light with matter and vice versa.
It’s a thing that most scientists never thought was possible. Some colleagues had asked Hau, “Why try that experiment? It can’t be done.”
In the experiment, a light pulse was slowed to bicycle speed by beaming it into a cold cloud of atoms. The light made a “fingerprint” of itself in the atoms before the experimenters turned it off. Then Hau and her assistants guided that fingerprint into a second clump of cold atoms. And get this – the clumps were not touching and no light passed between them.
“The two atom clouds were separated and had never seen each other before,” Hau notes. They were eight-thousandths of an inch apart, a relatively huge distance on the scale of atoms.
The experimenters then nudged the second cloud of atoms with a laser beam, and the atomic imprint was revived as a light pulse. The revived light had all the characteristics present when it entered the first cloud of atomic matter, the same shape and wavelength. The restored light exited the cloud slowly then quickly sped up to its normal 186,000 miles a second.