In Brief
  • As the will-o'-the-wisp lights a path for travelers in Scottish folklore, polaritons act as easily detectable markers, guiding scientists towards solutions.

Magic Dust

For years, supercomputers have provided hope for insight into some of science’s most mysterious and seemingly unanswerable problems. The continued advancement of quantum computing has given scientists renewed hope, but a recent study from UK and Russian researchers takes the potential one step further by combining light and matter to form what is known as “magic dust.”

Based in Cambridge, Southampton, and Cardiff Universities in the UK and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Russia, these researchers have demonstrated that this magical combination could potentially allow us to surpass the capabilities of even the most advanced supercomputers. Quantum particles known as polaritons, which are half light and half matter, were shown to “light the way” to simple solutions when given complicated problems. The results of this study, as reported in the journal Nature Materials, could eventually lead scientists to solve the currently unsolvable.

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Mixing Matter

When calculating a mathematical solution to a complex problem with real-world applications, it is essential to ensure the minimal number of steps possible. The most direct path to an answer keeps the risk for confusion or mistakes low, but when tackling the most intricate problems of our known universe, this becomes a seemingly impossible task. “This is exactly the problem to tackle when the objective function to minimise represents a real-life problem with many unknowns, parameters, and constraints,” said the paper’s first author, Professor Natalia Berloff of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology.

Berloff, along with her team, designed this use of “magic dust” from a fairly creative angle. As the will-o’-the-wisp lights a path for travelers in Scottish folklore, polaritons act as easily detectable markers, guiding scientists towards a solution. Select atoms like gallium, arsenic, indium, and aluminum are stacked and a laser is directed at them. The electrons in this light-matter mashup absorb the light and emit light in different colors. 10,000 times lighter than electrons, polaritons could reach densities that would make it a Bose-Einstein condensate, a new state of matter in which the quantum phases of these polaritons would both sync up and create a macroscopic quantum object detectable with photoluminescence. These scientists are, quite literally, creating beacons of light.

Co-author Professor Pavlos Lagoudakis, Head of the Hybrid Photonics Lab at the University of Southampton and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (where the experiments were performed) expounded, “We are just at the beginning of exploring the potential of polariton graphs for solving complex problems…We are currently scaling up our device to hundreds of nodes, while testing its fundamental computational power. The ultimate goal is a microchip quantum simulator operating at ambient conditions.”

It isn’t just the depths of astrophysics that contain unsolvable problems. Biology, finance, space travel, and others have deep wells of unanswered questions. Questions that a supercomputer using magic dust to light the way to a simple solution might be able to answer.