Physicists Tie Beam of Light into Knots

Imagine taking a beam of light and tying it in knots like a piece of string. Hard to fathom? Well, a group of physicists from the UK have achieved this remarkable feat, and they say understanding how to control light in this way has important implications for laser technology used in wide a range of industries.

“In a light beam, the flow of light through space is similar to water flowing in a river,” said Dr. Mark Dennis from the University of Bristol and lead author of a paper published in Nature Physics this week. “Although it often flows in a straight line – out of a torch, laser pointer, etc – light can also flow in whirls and eddies, forming lines in space called ‘optical vortices.’ Along these lines, or optical vortices, the intensity of the light is zero (black). The light all around us is filled with these dark lines, even though we can’t see them.”

Optical vortices can be created with holograms which direct the flow of light. In this work, the team designed holograms using knot theory – a branch of abstract mathematics inspired by knots that occur in shoelaces and rope. Using these specially designed holograms they were able to create knots in optical vortices.

This new research demonstrates a physical application for a branch of mathematics previously considered completely abstract.

“The sophisticated hologram design required for the experimental demonstration of the knotted light shows advanced optical control, which undoubtedly can be used in future laser devices,” said Miles Padgett from Glasgow University, who led the experiments

“The study of knotted vortices was initiated by Lord Kelvin back in 1867 in his quest for an explanation of atoms,” addeds Dennis, who began to study knotted optical vortices with Professor Sir Michael Berry at Bristol University in 2000. “This work opens a new chapter in that history.”

Paper: Isolated optical vortex knots by Mark R. Dennis, Robert P. King, Barry Jack, Kevin O’Holleran and Miles J. Padgett. Nature Physics, published online 17 January 2010.

Source: University of Bristol

3 Replies to “Physicists Tie Beam of Light into Knots”

  1. After optical tweezers, optical knots to play with.

    But what we really would like to have is light that peeks around corners.

    [Yes, I know, now we have that too, behind the “cloaked” volume thingies.]

    No, really, this type of 3D control of volumes vaguely points to all sorts of nifty contact-less analysis and production technology.

  2. I have been working with braid systems of fermions, which I think underly superstrings, and D-branes in this picture are analogous to Fermi surfaces in solid state physics. This can occur on the bosonic level as well, which is what we have here.

    Optical tweezers have been applied to measure the force ribosomes exert on mRNA as its sequence is translated into polypeptides.

    Light trapped in vortices of this sort may have various entanglement properties with other vortices. This form of trapped light can then be manipulated by pi-pulses os as to nonlocally adjust other vortices. This would be a form of quantum computation,


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