Ripping a hole in space and time

Scientists in Heriot Watt laboratory Both of the studies which have received funding are examining the interaction of light and matter

In an unassuming laboratory at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, they are ripping a hole in the fabric of space and time.

Not too far away, they are working with information that can mean two things at once.

They are two separate studies, but what they have in common is the interaction of light and matter.

Together they've won 3m Euros (£2.3m) in research funding. The money has come from the EU's European Research Council as part of a programme to encourage creativity in research.

Dr Daniele Faccio is working on a laser which emits pulses 100 times a second. The power of each pulse is measured in trillions of watts. He prefers to think of it as 10,000 times the power of a nuclear power plant.

He is using it to create an analogue black hole.

"We're trying to generate exactly the same conditions that you would find around a gravitational black hole," he says.

"Black holes normally live at the centre of a galaxy, but what we're trying to do is reproduce these conditions in our lab so we can control and tune the conditions and try to make these black holes do something useful for us."

Massive dollops

It's part of humankind's drive to understand the Universe, and one question in particular will occupy Dr Faccio in the coming years: how light behaves in materials which are themselves moving at the speed of light.

While Dr Faccio is looking at how massive dollops of matter behave, Dr Brian Gerardot is working at the other end of the scale, one electron and one photon at a time.

His half of the award will be spent trying to bring the ideas of quantum physics into our everyday lives.

The theory of quantum computing is already well developed, albeit head-swimmingly counterintuitive. The bits which make our digital world work can be only one of two values: zero or one.

A quantum bit can similarly be zero or one. But it can also be both at once.

The implications for areas such as cryptography, measurement and computing are huge - if the theory can be transferred to the production line.

Laser light Dr Faccio is using his laser to create an analogue black hole

That is where Dr Gerardot hopes his work will leading.

"The theorists have come up with lots of very interesting ways that would really revolutionise lots of fields," he says.

"What's missing though is a way to scale up from just one of these devices to having lots of these quantum bits on the same device that are all working together."

Meanwhile, back to that rip in space and time. Some of us might be troubled by the thought that someone is creating a black hole on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

Dr Faccio says we shouldn't worry: "What we are creating is the same space-time structure which characterises a black hole.

"But we're doing this with a light pulse, so we don't actually have the mass which is associated with black holes.

"Gravitational black holes are generated by a collapsing star. We don't actually have this collapsing star, so there's no danger of being sucked into the black holes we're generating here."

Both the Heriot-Watt projects are examples of how research at the frontiers of science is not merely a matter of methodical inquiry. It needs creativity too.

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