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Creating matter from light

Monday 10th November 2014 @ 19:00

Non-Member: £12.00 ; Staff: £5.00 ; Student: £3.00


Professor Steven Rose, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences

Theoretically matter can be created from photons in a pure demonstration of Einstein’s equation E=mc2. Find out how it can be done.

 

In May this year, it was announced that Imperial physicists had discovered how to create matter from light - a feat thought impossible when the idea was first theorised 80 years ago.

In just one day over several cups of coffee in a tiny office in Imperial’s Blackett Physics Laboratory, three physicists worked out a relatively simple way to physically prove a theory first devised by scientists Breit and Wheeler in 1934.

Breit and Wheeler suggested that it should be possible to turn light into matter by smashing together only two particles of light (photons), to create an electron and a positron – the simplest method of turning light into matter ever predicted. The calculation was found to be theoretically sound but Breit and Wheeler said that they never expected anybody to physically demonstrate their prediction. It has never been observed in the laboratory and past experiments to test it have required the addition of massive high-energy particles.

The new research shows for the first time how Breit and Wheeler’s theory could be proven in practice. This ‘photon-photon collider’, which would convert light directly into matter using technology that is already available, would be a new type of high-energy physics experiment. This experiment would recreate a process that was important in the first 100 seconds of the universe and that is also seen in gamma ray bursts, which are the biggest explosions in the universe and one of physics’ greatest unsolved mysteries.

Professor Rose and his colleagues had been investigating unrelated problems in fusion energy when they realised what they were working on could be applied to the Breit-Wheeler theory. The breakthrough was achieved in collaboration with a fellow theoretical physicist from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, who happened to be visiting Imperial.

Professor Steve Rose from the Department of Physics at Imperial College London said: “Despite all physicists accepting the theory to be true, when Breit and Wheeler first proposed the theory, they said that they never expected it be shown in the laboratory. Today, nearly 80 years later, we prove them wrong. What was so surprising to us was the discovery of how we can create matter directly from light using the technology that we have today in the UK. As we are theorists we are now talking to others who can use our ideas to undertake this landmark experiment.”

The scientists hope to demonstrate the process in the next 12 months. There are a number of sites around the world that have the technology. One is the huge Omega laser in Rochester, New York. But another is the Orion laser at Aldermaston, the atomic weapons facility in Berkshire – where Professor Rose was based.

Professor Rose joined the College as the Head of the Plasma Physics Group in December 2006, a position he held until October 2012. Professor Rose has worked in plasma physics for all of his career, with a particular emphasis on plasmas produced using high-power lasers.

He has spent much of that time working at the two high-power laser facilities in the UK: the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory’s Central Laser Facility where he became the Associate Director for Physics and at AWE Aldermaston where he was the Head of Plasma Physics.

In 2008 he was the first Director of the Institute of Shock Physics at Imperial College, a position he held until 2011. In 2009 he was appointed the co-Director of the Centre for Inertial Fusion Studies and from October 2011 he has been the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences.

Optionally followed by supper (this can be booked on the event booking form).
After the lecture a Friends' Table has been reserved at a local restaurant to entertain the speaker and for any of the audience who would like to join us to continue the evening's discussion. A two-course fixed price supper is served including wine, coffee and service charge.
Or if you have already booked for the event and now want to join us for supper Book Supper now

Venue: SAF Building, Imperial College London

Campus Map reference 33
on the Imperial College London Map