Researchers illuminate the hidden properties of light

Story highlights

  • "We thought it was impossible for a photon to send you halfway round," scientist Paul Eastham says
  • Light, it seems, doesn't necessarily conform to the rules we thought it did

(CNN)When it comes to understanding light, it turns out we're more in the dark than we thought.

Researchers in Ireland have reported that they discovered a "new form" of light, and, in a press release, say that their discovery "will impact our understanding of the fundamental nature of light." The discovery was published in the scientific journal "Science Advances."
    The recent discovery by physicists at Ireland's Trinity College Dublin could alter our established thinking of how a key aspect of light -- its angular momentum -- is understood.
    Angular momentum is a measurement of how something rotates around its own axis, which light is known to do. Essentially, as photons -- tiny particles of light -- travel through space, they twist and turn around their axes.
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    Previously it was thought that light's angular momentum was a constant, but the team at Trinity discovered that under certain conditions, it only spins around its axis half as much as it should.
    Light, it seems, doesn't necessarily conform to the rules we thought it did. This could mean big things, the researchers say.
    "It's a bit like a tiny, light merry-go-round at a playground. It goes round and round, which is more or less they way people understood light to work. We thought it was impossible for a photon to send you halfway round, but it turns out, it's not," lead researcher Paul Eastham told CNN.
    "What I think is so exciting about this result is that even this fundamental property of light, that physicists have always thought was fixed, can be changed," he said.
    "But this science is in a very early stage -- the next stage is to work out the consequences, how this could be used in everyday life," Eastham said.
    Eastham suggested that the discovery could have implications for telecommunications and privacy. The nature of these newly found photons are by nature harder to crack, meaning they could deliver data without such a high threat of a third party snooping. It could be used in fiber-optic cables to improve speed and security.

    'Breakthrough' for physics

    The research was the product of collaboration between the university's School of Physics and its Center for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN).
    Director of CRANN Stefano Sanvito called the work "fundamental scientific research that challenges our understanding of light.
    "The topic of light has always been one of interest to physicists, while also being documented as one of the areas of physics that is best understood. This discovery is a breakthrough for the world of physics and science alike."