Slow Light Will Speed Communications

Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are working on a way to slow light to a crawl - the speed of a jet aircraft. A paper published in Physical Review Letters this month presents calculations to prove the existence of a new class of soliton - a solitary light wave that can propagate over long distances while moving slowly. The speed reduction allows proper routing, conversion to other forms and proper synchronization.

Their paper demonstrates that a stable pulsed laser can create a soliton that travels slowly through a supercold gas of rubidium atoms for more than 5 centimeters without noticeable distortion. A "soliton" is a stable wave that appears throughout the natural world - they were first discovered in a canal near Edinburgh in 1834 by scientist John Scott Russell. See the picture below for a naturally occurring soliton - a stationary wave off the coast of Hawaii.


(Pictures of the smaller light solitons
were hard to come by...)

Light wave solitons are being considered as a means of packing more information into communication systems. Other methods of slowing light down have been tried; however, attenuations and distortions occur quickly, distorting data before the light has traveled even 1 millimeter.

Bob Shaw wrote a very nice short story in the 1960's called Light of Other Days. In the story, he refers to "slow glass" - a material in which light travels so slowly it is literally "trapped" in the material. Light trapped this way comes slowly out the other side years later. See Super slow light may help speed optical communications for the original story.

Update 25-Mar-2012: SF great L. sprague de Camp presented a similar idea in his whimsical 1940 story The Exhalted; see the reference to slow glass rod. End update.

If you enjoy light in unusual states, you might be interested in Super-Photons Used For Good, Not Evil; multiple photons act as one under certain conditions.

Special thanks to an alert reader who mentioned slow glass - your contribution is greatly appreciated!

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/29/2004)

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