Even if you couldn’t tell me the first thing about physics, you’re probably familiar with the equation E=mc2, Einstein’s famous theory of relativity that hypothesized (based off extensive observations) that light could be converted into matter and vice verse.
Then, in the 1930s, Gregory Breit and John A. Wheeler expanded on Einstein’s theory, arguing that it should be theoretically possible to accomplish this transformation using just two photons.
However, until very recently, it was thought that actually turning light into matter with just two photons was virtually impossible, since it would require colliding the two infinitesimally small light particles (which technically have no mass or volume) with one another, an extremely difficult task.
The breakthrough came in a scholarly article published in the journal Nature Photonics on May 18th which described a groundbreaking new “photon-collider”. The collider works by heating up a golden vacuum tube known as a hohlraum (a hohlraum is basically just a vacuum in which the radiative energy in the walls and the interior of the vacuum are at equilibrium).
As the hohlraum is heated, it begins emitting photons. Once there’s a significant “cloud” of photons in the hohlraum, a high energy laser is shot at another piece of gold. This laser heats up the gold target until it starts shooting gamma rays (photons) at extremely high speeds into the hohlraum.
If one of these high-energy photons collides with one of the photons in the hohlraum, the two annihilate one another, creating an electron and a positron, the electron’s antimatter equivalent which carries a positive charge (think of it as an anti-electron). Conversely, when an electron and a positron collide at high speeds, they annihilate to form pure energy, in the form of two photons.
Now that the process of colliding photons has been proven to be experimentally possible in the lab, physicists across the globe will be scrambling to be the first to successfully convert light into matter.
Somewhere, Einstein is smiling.
Read more from the L.A. Times here.