Key Takeaways:

  1. Scientists at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) have produced evidence of two physics phenomena predicted over 80 years ago.
  2. The study demonstrates the direct conversion of energetic light into matter, in line with Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2.
  3. The research shows that the path of light traveling through a vacuum bends differently based on its polarization, a phenomenon known as birefringence.
  4. The experiments involved colliding very energetic photons to create pairs of electrons and positrons (matter and antimatter) directly from light.
  5. These groundbreaking findings build on the work of renowned physicists from the early 20th century and highlight the advancements in technology and analysis techniques.

In a groundbreaking study at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), scientists have achieved what was predicted more than 80 years ago — the direct generation of matter and antimatter from light. By colliding energetic photons, which are quantum packets of light, researchers successfully transformed light energy into pairs of electrons and positrons.

Making matter from light: Two gold (Au) ions (red) move in opposite direction at 99.995% of the speed of light (v, for velocity, = approximately c, the speed of light). As the ions pass one another without colliding, two photons (?) from the electromagnetic cloud surrounding the ions can interact with each other to create a matter-antimatter pair: an electron (e-) and positron (e+). Credit: Brookhaven Natioinal Laboratory

This remarkable conversion is a direct consequence of Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc^2, which states the interchangeability of energy and matter. RHIC’s advanced STAR detector played a pivotal role in analyzing over 6,000 pairs of particles produced during these glancing collisions, providing definitive evidence for the long-awaited physics phenomena.

Additionally, the study revealed another intriguing result: the bending of light traveling through a vacuum in a magnetic field depends on its polarization. This effect, known as birefringence, was previously observed in certain materials, but this is the first experimental evidence of polarization-dependent light-bending in a vacuum. The ability to measure such tiny deflections of particles produced during the collisions allowed scientists to study how light particles interact with the powerful magnetic fields generated by accelerated ions.

The process involved accelerating heavy ions, such as gold ions, to nearly the speed of light, generating powerful magnetic fields that surround the particles like a cloud of photons. When two clouds of photons from opposite directions interacted during glancing collisions, scientists tracked and analyzed the resulting interactions to identify the predicted electron-positron pairs.

Bending polarized light: This illustration shows how light with different polarization directions (indicated by black arrows) passes through a material along two different paths (yellow beams). This is called the birefringence effect. Results from RHIC provide evidence that birefringence also happens in a magnetic field in a vacuum. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

The findings not only confirmed theoretical predictions by physicists Gregory Breit and John A. Wheeler made in 1934 but also supported the work of Werner Heisenberg, Hans Heinrich Euler, and John Toll, who predicted vacuum birefringence and light absorption by a magnetic field in the 1930s and 1950s. These groundbreaking results mark a significant advancement in our understanding of the fundamental interactions between light and matter, highlighting the capabilities of modern technologies and analysis techniques developed at RHIC.

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