September 30, 2013
Darth Vader
Your skills are complete. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

Indeed they are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen!

Let me explain.

Several scientists at Harvard and MIT are basically Jedi now. Harvard Professor of Physics Mikhail Lukin and MIT Professor of Physics Vladan Vuletic, working with colleagues at the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms (which would be an okay but not overwhelming name for a band) have constructed a light saber — or at least something that closely resembles one. After several months of intense training — levitating their droids, climbing into caves made of tree roots and having disturbing visions of the future that included cities in the clouds and (more disastrously) accidental spoilers for the final episodes of Breaking Bad, they finally honed their skills to the point of being able to build the elegant weapons of a more civilized age.

A little actual science to leaven this exultation: What has actually happened is that scientists at Harvard and MIT created a medium in which photons behave like they have mass (our operating assumption for a while has been that they are “massless particles”) and from which they emerge bonded together into a molecule. This is nifty for reasons other than that we are marginally closer to light sabers than we used to be — it could come in handy in quantum computing — but mainly it is exciting because we are marginally closer to light sabers than we used to be.

And this isn’t one of those scientific breakthroughs that actually bears little resemblance to Star Wars (“We found the Higgs boson, which is kind of like the Force, in a sense?”; “This recently discovered lizard totally belongs on Dagobah!”) except in the minds of the people who write up news stories, who are always desperately searching for some concept they can relate to. No, this time the scientists themselves said it was a good analogy! “It’s not an inapt analogy to compare this to light sabers,” Harvard professor of physics Mikhail Lukin told the Harvard Gazette. “When these photons interact with each other, they’re pushing against and deflecting each other. The physics of what’s happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.”

As far as next steps go, all they need to do is defeat their fathers in combat and bring balance to the Force, but after constructing what is basically a light saber we know that the next steps are pretty much a done deal. Once you’ve built it, taking on the Emperor is easier than tearing the arms off a gundark.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.