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Physicists Finally Observed a Long-Hypothesized Molecule Made of Light and Matter

By: April Carson

In a loosely bonded molecule, physicists have just seen light play the part of "glue" between atoms. This offers scientists a new way to study the strange quantum behavior of light, and could have implications for information processing and other technologies.

"For the first time, we've succeeded in polarizing several atoms together in a controlled manner, generating a measurable attractive force between them," explains University of Innsbruck physicist Matthias Sonnleitner.

Atoms link with each other in a variety of ways, all of which include a swapping of charges and are referred to as "superglue" bonds.

The negatively charged electrons of some atoms are shared, resulting in relatively strong bonds such as the most simple gases that surround two conjoined oxygen atoms we constantly breathe in, and the more complex hydrocarbons floating in space. Some atoms are attracted owing to variances in their overall charge.

For example, when chlorine gas (Cl) and sodium metal (Na) are placed next to each other, the lone electron of the chlorine atoms is pulled towards the cluster of electrons in the sodium. This creates a sort of tug-of-war that results in an ionic bond between the two elements.

Electromagnetic radiation can alter the configurations of charges surrounding the atom. A shower of appropriately aimed photons, on the other hand, may nudge electrons into placements that – in theory – might allow them to combine.

"The charge distribution is altered if you now turn on an external electric field," according to physicist Philipp Haslinger from the Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien). "The atom's positive and negative sides are polarized, it suddenly has a positive and negative side."

Haslinger and his colleagues used this effect to create a molecule made of light and matter. In their experiment, they fired a laser at an atom of ytterbium. This created an electric field around the atom, which in turn caused its electrons to rearrange themselves.

Light can polarize atoms, according to researchers from TU Wien and the University of Innsbruck. Mira Maiwöger and coworkers used ultra-cold rubidium atoms to show that light can indeed polarize particles in a manner comparable to that previously observed for ultracold sodium ions.

"You must conduct the experiment carefully to measure it, since this is a very weak attractive force. It has to be done quickly and effectively," says Maiwöger.

"The attractive force disappears completely if atoms contain a large amount of energy and are moving swiftly. This is why an atom cloud was utilized."

A cloud of 5,000 atoms was trapped in a single plane using a magnetic field by the researchers.

They cooled the atoms to temperatures approaching absolute zero (–273°C or –460 °F), forming a quasicondensate, which is where the rubidium particles begin acting together and sharing characteristics similar to those found in the fifth state of matter, but not quite as much.

The atoms were subjected to a slew of forces when they were hit with a laser. For example, radiation pressure from the photons is one force that can push them along the light beam. Meanwhile, the electrons' responses may draw the atom back towards the brightest part of the beam.

"We have created a new type of molecule by bonding together atoms of light and atoms of matter," said study author Dan Stamper-Kurn, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "This hybrid object is held together by the same kind of forces that bind together atoms in ordinary molecules."

Because the researchers needed to compute and calculate in order to detect the minor attraction that may exist between atoms in this flood of electromagnetic energy, they had to be meticulous.

After being switched off, the atoms moved for approximately 44 milliseconds before coming into contact with the laser light field and being imaged by light sheet fluorescence microscopy.

During the fall, the cloud expanded naturally, allowing the researchers to take density readings at various levels.

The researchers discovered that at high densities, up to 18% of the atoms in the observed images were missing. They think these absences were caused by light-assisted collisions pushing the rubidium atoms out of their cloud.

This showed what was going on — not only the incoming light, but also light scattering off the other atoms. When the light contacted the atoms, it polarized them.

The atoms were attracted or repelled by greater light intensity, depending on the sort of light utilized. As a result, they were either drawn to the area of lower light or higher light – in both cases, they congregated together.

"The [light-triggered] interaction differs from traditional radiation forces in that it is an effective particle-particle interaction, mediated by scattered light," Maiwöger and colleagues note in their research.

It does not, as the name implies, capture atoms at a single position (for example, a laser beam's focus), but it draws them toward areas of high particle concentration.

This light-based molecule is an unusual one, and it opens up new possibilities for studying how light and matter interact.

This force is about a billion times weaker than molecular forces we're more accustomed to, yet it can accumulate when taken together over vast distances. This may cause emission patterns and resonance lines to shift — features that astronomers use to expand our understanding of heavenly bodies.

It may also explain how molecules form in space.

"In the emptiness of space, even little forces might play a significant role," Haslinger adds. "We were able to demonstrate for the first time that electromagnetic radiation can generate a force between atoms, which may help to explain astrophysical events that have yet to be explained."

This study was posted on Thesciverse.



About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav




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