Slain Officer Remembered by Sister, Friends

By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

On Monday, Jenn Rogers, the sister of  MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was shot and killed while sitting in his squad car at 10:20 p.m. a year ago today, will be taking her place on the marathon starting line in Hopkinton, prepared to run 26.2 miles in honor of her brother’s life.

“Finishing will be a personal goal to myself,” Rogers said of crossing the finish line on Boylston Street.

Always known as the “family runner,” Rogers said it seems natural to run the 2014 Boston Marathon, which she thinks will be historic.

Rogers is running on “Team Collier Strong,” a group that includes the officer’s friends, Rogers’ friends, and her older brother, Rob. They are running for two causes: The Officer Sean Collier Self-Sponsor Scholarship, which will send awardees through the Lowell Police Academy, and The Hole in the Wall Gang, which provides enriching summer camp experiences for seriously ill children.

Just a week ago, the team passed the $40,000 mark in their fundraising, well on their way to reaching a goal of $50,000 before race day.

Collier would have wanted to be a part of this marathon, Rogers said. He would have cared about bringing the community back together and displaying Boston’s indelible strength.

“I’m also doing this for the other victims and survivors,” Rogers said. “To be a part of their support system and have them support us matters. I wanted to do something big and out-of-the-box the way Sean would do it.”

Collier, who as an auxiliary police volunteer raised money for breast cancer awareness, had a passion for doing good things for other people, Rogers said.

One MIT staff member always forgot an umbrella, so Rogers said her brother left one outside her door with a note.

He once adopted a cat he found on Craigslist named Ninja.

He thought the EMTs at MIT weren’t getting praised enough for their hard volunteer work, so he wrote to Police Chief John DiFava requesting that they receive some recognition, she said.

This past February, Collier got his wish, and the student-run ambulance service was awarded the first Collier Medal for embodying the spirit of the fallen officer.

Katherine Goldsmith, a 19-year-old Wellesley student and part-time EMT at MIT, is a part of the group of EMS volunteers who received the Collier Medal.

Not only did Collier go out of his way to praise the EMS volunteers, but Goldsmith said he went out of his way for just about anybody.

“He was really good at small talk,” Goldsmith said, describing how he introduced himself to her when she first joined EMS and didn’t know anyone. “Out of thousands of students, he always recognized me. He always remembered faces.”

Collier would hang out with the EMTs and play video games with them when they were off duty. He’d ask them about their classes, want to know about their projects, Goldsmith said. He also always went out of his way to follow the ambulance in his cruiser when EMS got calls.

The EMS ambulance was named for Collier, Goldsmith said. Her supervisor got license plate 179, his badge number.

Goldsmith said she honors Collier’s memory by simply being nicer to people — being more welcoming.

“He was so actively involved in student life in a way that was unusual,” Goldsmith said. “He wasn’t just another uniform.”

Rogers said Collier, 26, wanted to make the world a better place.

He was someone who loved to have fun, she said, but he put his job as a police officer first and foremost. He had always wanted to be a cop, she said.

“He put his heart and soul into it,” Rogers said.

Collier joined the auxiliary police as a teenager, she said, assisting the police department by patrolling the community and acting as extra “eyes and ears” for the department. At the time of his death, he had been preparing to join the Somerville Police Department—his lifelong dream. He was posthumously appointed a Somerville police officer in August, she said.

Some of her earliest memories of Collier are of him running around their front yard playing “cops and robbers,” or dressing up as a fireman. His respect for first responders was something he was born with, Rogers said, and he had a fierce love for the American flag.

“I remember him running around the yard yelling, “Stop in the name of the law!” and singing the Bad Boys theme song,” Rogers says with a laugh. “He loved the brotherhood of it all.”

Collier was also passionate about the outdoors, she said, and he joined MIT’s Outing Club during Winter School with gusto, quickly mastering the basics of mountaineering and winter hiking.

To train, he ran stairs with the club in full uniform—attracting the attention and laughs of many a passerby, Rogers said.

In the final Winter School challenge, Collier completed a grueling mid-winter climb of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast.

The outing club members also fondly mention how Collier always brought pepperoni on long hikes with him, according to their website.

“At the end of the day, he was still a goofball,” Rogers said with a laugh. “That’s how I’ll remember him.”

Though Rogers admits training for the marathon has been emotionally and physically grueling, she said her family has always stood for being able to “laugh and love” through the pain.

The family members take turns attending the many memorial events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings and the anniversary of Collier’s death so that one person does not feel overwhelmed, Rogers said. It helps that her mom used to be a grief counselor. She encourages the family to be open with their sorrow, Rogers added.

“We’re all just going to take it as we can,” Rogers said, “But I’m proud to live in this city. I’m proud to show the world that we are not going to back down because of something so awful.”

Collier, right, and his sister, Jenn Rogers, dance.
Collier, right, and his sister, Jenn Rogers, dance.

Thousands Gather to Honor MIT Police Officer Collier

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By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

Thousands gathered at MIT’s North Court this morning to attend a ceremony of remembrance for MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who was shot and killed in his squad car at 10:20 p.m. last April 18 by one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

At the ceremony, MIT architecture professor J. Meejin Yoon revealed the design of The Collier Memorial—an “open hand” structure, to remind visitors to always choose an “open hand over a closed fist,” as Collier would.

Yoon said the granite structure would be comprised of five walls interconnected through a series of reflection gardens to evoke the absence of a central figure, creating a void, but also allowing for a unifying central space of reflection.

Engraved on the memorial, it will state, “In the line of duty, Sean Collier April 18, 2013,” Yoon said.

A second inscription will come from Collier’s brother’s eulogy, saying, “Live long, like he would. Big smiles, big heart, big service, big love.”

Many present did not know Collier personally, but came out of respect for the MIT community, or because they had heard so many stories describing Collier as an exceptionally good, kind person.

Marsha Edmunds, a long time former employee in MIT’s administration, said she came because she is forever bonded to the school community.

“He was such an innocent person to be shot down the way he was,” Edmunds said, pulling her red coat tighter against the cold wind. “I didn’t know Sean personally, but he inspired a community to come together.”

Almost every seat was filled beneath the spacious white tent erected behind the Koch Cancer Research Institute adjacent to the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street where Collier was killed. Quiet music hummed and the audience spoke quietly before the ceremony started. Many donned “MIT Strong” maroon and white pins that were being handed out by event planners at the mouth of the tent.

John Wuestneck, a chaplain at MIT for the past 21 years, said he knew Collier personally.

“He was a really nice guy,” Wuestneck said. He worked directly across from MIT’s police department, so he passed Collier often. “He was really good with students, good with everybody.” Wuestneck shrugged, looking down.

“What can you say?” he said.

Under a gray, overcast sky, the ceremony began at 9:30 a.m. as MIT and Cambridge police forces filed into the front of the tent. The audience stood and clapped for nearly five minutes.

The MIT Police and the Cambridge Police Joint Honor Guard then performed the presentation of the flags and Lieutenant Pauline Carter-Wells of the City of Cambridge Police Department performed the National Anthem, causing the audience to erupt in applause.

MIT’s Executive Vice President and Treasurer, Israel Ruiz, welcomed the guests, most of who were from the MIT community, saying, “It is an honor and a comfort to have you with us today.”

Ruiz described Collier as a constantly smiling presence on campus—someone who talked to everyone and made an effort to get to know students and faculty. He said he met Collier unexpectedly, in a time when he was in great need of a helping hand.

One frigid Friday in February 2013, when winter storm Nemo had shut down MIT’s campus and caused a traffic ban on cars and taxis, Ruiz said he found himself stranded at Boston’s South Station after a business trip to New York.

Ruiz’s colleagues, worried about his safety in the winter storm, sent an MIT cruiser to come pick him up. Shortly after, Collier pulled up and rolled down his window, smiling, Ruiz said.

“He asked me if I was a grad student,” Ruiz said, as the audience laughed heartily. “I said, “Once I was, but I don’t have a uniform.”” He smiled.

During the car ride, Ruiz said Collier mentioned his love for the MIT community. The snowy street was deserted, but Ruiz remembered Collier stopped at an intersection on their way back to campus to help a lost student.

The light was green, Ruiz said, but Collier stopped to help him anyway.

“The light then switched from red to green—a couple of times,” Ruiz said with a laugh.

Ruiz said Collier’s actions that night, just small acts of kindness, perfectly exemplified the MIT community—a community that will “always roll down the window for those who need help.”

United States Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren following Ruiz, said that terror such as last year’s events surrounding the Boston Bombings and its aftermath, can often break people’s spirits.

Boston and Cambridge, however, did not waver, she said.

“We responded with a cry of defiance, not of fear,” Warren said, and reminded the audience to hold Collier in their hearts forever.


John DiFava, MIT Police Chief, had worked closely with Collier during the officer’s 15 months at MIT’s department. Collier had been about to leave the force to join Somerville’s department.

DiFava was one of the last speakers at the ceremony, and described Collier’s immense impact on the way DiFava viewed life.

When he was a child, DiFava said he grew up with heroes like the Lone Ranger, but over time, grew cynical along with life’s many disappointments.

He lost sight of the idea that heroes still exist among men, DiFava said, but Collier taught him many life lessons that slowly changed DiFava’s hardened worldview. One thing Collier taught him was the meaning of bravery, he said.

“He was so young, but wise beyond his years,” DiFava said, looking out to the audience. “He had such insight into people, which illustrates the enormity of our loss.” His voice cracked.

While 2013 has been marked by unimaginable sadness, DiFava said he hopes 2014 will be a year with less frequent tears, a year to “turn to the sun with hope.”

As the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble, donned in all black sang “Amazing Grace,” DiFava bowed his head and wiped tears from his face.

“I now know heroes still walk on our earth,” DiFava said.

Geologist Looks to Earth’s Past for Hints of Earth’s Future

By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

In his quest to understand earth’s history, Professor Sam Bowring has traveled to Siberia, Poland, India and China. He has been chased by a black bear for four hours through the Northwest Territories of Canada, eventually ridding himself of the beast by shooting a flare gun into its eye. He has stared into the eyes of a mountain lion all night long in the scrub brush desert of New Mexico, wielding only a small knife and hammer, eventually dozing off as his campfire cooled and awaking to the sound of the lion’s screams in the distance.

Bowring is, first and foremost, a geologist—and he has a mystery to solve.

The adventures the Indiana Jones of geology encounters, whether he’s gathering rocks in South Korea or geomapping in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, are a bonus.

“I’m interested in the origin and evolution of the Earth’s crust,” Bowring said, sitting at his office desk in MIT’s Green Building, the tallest building on the Cambridge, Mass., campus.

Bowring, with bright sapphire eyes and a thick gray beard, has a quiet, serious demeanor as he discusses his work. Behind him, three metal bookshelves span the length of the room. The shelves are full, and every single title is about geology.

“Work is my hobby,” Bowring said, pausing to adjust the collar of his gray button-down shirt. “I like being outdoors and hiking, but I think about science all the time.”

For the past 20 years, Bowring has spent every day of his life trying to understand precisely when–and why 252 million years ago, at the end of the Permian Period, 96 percent of earth’s life disappeared.

Bowring and his colleagues traveled to a set of hills in China where there are rocks from the late Permian, early Triassic period. These rocks contain layers of fossils that show the scientists when certain species went extinct. Not only are there fossils preserved in these rocks, but there is also volcanic ash.

It is a mineral—zircon—in the volcanic ash that proves most useful to Bowring.

Bowring separates zircon, a brownish translucent mineral, from the ash because it has a special property.

When zircon forms in the newly spewed ash, the element uranium fits into the crystal structure quite nicely, he said. But lead does not—it’s radiogenic, meaning, it’s produced by radioactive decay.

“So the day that crystal forms, you have a clock,” Bowring said. “That clock is based on the decay rate of uranium to lead. By measuring that ratio, we can calculate the age of that ash quite precisely.” Bowring smiles as he makes this point.

Bowring thinks that by narrowing the time frame of this mass extinction, he and his colleagues could shed light on what factors might have caused it, possibly exposing parallels between what the environment looked like then, and now.

“Studying this is interesting because this is the largest extinction that animal life has seen on this planet,” Bowring said. “As we push to shorter and shorter time scales, it starts to be relevant to our own existence on this planet and what we’re doing to it.”

Recently, Bowring and his colleagues had a breakthrough thanks to increased precision in measuring rocks—they published a report in January for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences definitively stating that the mass extinction took less than 60,000 years.

While 60,000 years might seem like an incredibly long time to humans, in geology, this is a blink of an eye and means the extinction took place much more rapidly than previously thought.

Bowring describes this knowledge as “sobering” because the scientists have found a clue—spikes in carbon dioxide—that correlates with this narrowed time frame.

“When you look at the fossil record, you see fossils begin to disappear based on physiology and their ability to deal with high CO2 emissions,” Bowring said.

Animals, the ones who “sat in the mud and filtered water,” were the first to go, he said. They just couldn’t handle the accelerated rate of CO2 emissions. The last animals to disappear from the fossil record were the more active organisms.

Another clue Bowring has noted is that right after the extinction, animals couldn’t precipitate shells made from calcium carbonate very easily.

“There’s a dearth of shells in the fossil record,” Bowring said.

A simple way to inhibit the precipitation of calcium carbonate is to drop the pH, or acidity, of seawater.

“Today, people are very concerned that the pH of sea water has dropped about a tenth because of high carbon emissions,” he said.

Though Bowring and other scientists have thus determined that the mass extinction correlates with high CO2 levels and low pH levels in the ocean, they still struggle to understand precisely what could have caused this.

They do know that mammoth volcanoes in Siberia called the Siberian Traps were burping lava around this time for about a million years, spewing between three and 10 million cubic kilometers of scorching lava over the earth. Between three to five million cubic kilometers is enough to put a kilometer of lava over entire the entire United States—so that’s a lot.

While volcanic eruptions, even minor ones, can be responsible for sharp spikes in CO2 emissions, Bowring is not satisfied placing blame solely on the Siberian Traps.

“Timing is crucial,” he said. “We know that the Siberian Traps overlap with the extinction, but their eruption took place over a million years. Why, then, did the extinction take only tens of thousands of years?”

This question continues to puzzle Bowring and other scientists—perhaps the extinction was the result of a combination of factors, and the eruption of the Siberian Traps pushed the majority of life’s adaptation capabilities over the edge. But the lack of certainty doesn’t mean they won’t stop trying to narrow the time frame for further clues.

After all, there are no “absolutes” in science, Bowring said.

“I suspect that in the next year we will make that time frame much smaller,” he said.

Regardless of finding the exact cause of the extinction, Bowring believes the raised levels of CO2 from the end of the Permian Period reflect Earth’s current state, but the levels have been rising at a much accelerated pace.

The driving force of climate change, the high emission of CO2 through the burning of fossil fuels, has taken a phenomenon that occurred over tens of thousands of years and has put it on a decadal time scale.

By the mid 21st century, the magnitudes of projected changes for global temperature shift will be substantially affected by the choice of emissions scenario, according to the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel also noted that it is “extremely likely” (greater than 95 percent confidence) that most warming between 1951 and 2010 was human-caused.

This information is depressing, Bowring said, but what’s more depressing is that humans aren’t prepared to change their actions accordingly. Young people are taught that the only successful economies are ones that grow, and they grow at the expense of burning fossil fuels, a quick energy fix that is unsustainable.

This is largely because people only think about climate change on a very small time scale—“How can you expect people to make intelligent decisions about climate change when half the population thinks Earth is less than 10,000 years old?” he said.

In this vein, Bowring thinks a start to solving the problem involves better Earth science education at high schools and universities.

Many Earth science programs have been cut from course curriculum at public schools—even in Massachusetts, a state at the forefront of cutting-edge scientific research, he said.

Furthermore, taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, many of which are religious and teach that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, according to Politico.

While public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design, private schools receiving public subsidies can and still do. This is fundamentally at odds with students understanding the history of Earth’s environment, and therefore prevents them from understanding the challenges faced in our current environment, Bowring said.

“Anyone who will listen about geologic time and the importance of understanding evolutionary history and applying those lessons to the hard future, that’s really important,” Bowring said. “We don’t do enough of it.”

Bowring said when he thinks about his life’s accomplishments, he’s most proud of the students he has produced who are interested in solving similar problems. He can tick off the names of five students who are now teaching geochronology at various universities around the United States.

“Your scientific achievements—they are just flashes in the pan,” Bowring said. “You’ll get a newspaper article published, but 30 years from now, no one will remember that.”

Julia Baldwin, an assistant professor at the University of Montana, is a former student of Bowring. She took his geochemistry class and he encouraged her to get involved with geochronology research in Saskatchewan, a prairie province in Canada.

When you’re in the field with Bowring, Baldwin said in a phone interview, you collect ten times more rocks than any other day. He encourages students to pull out their giant rock hammers to hack away at rocks, filling their backpacks till they weigh 50 pounds, she said with a laugh.

“He’d say, ‘You might never see this rock again!’” Baldwin said in a phone interview. “He’s just so excited about everything you see.”

Besides his passion for science, she said she was struck by how committed he was to his students.

Completely devoted to undergraduate education, Bowring goes out of his way to lead field trips to Yellowstone National Park before classes start, Baldwin said. That’s how he gets students so excited about geology, she said—he actually gets them outdoors looking at it.

“He puts a lot of responsibility in students’ hands,” Baldwin said. “He first gives you the knowledge then says, ‘Go do great things with this.’ But he doesn’t take credit for it—he just doesn’t have an ego like that.”

Like Bowring, Baldwin also thinks a greater emphasis on earth science education needs to exist, from kindergarten to college.
Students need an understanding of deep time and what it means in order to evaluate the present day climate problems, Baldwin said.

“Students should make decisions with a ‘scientific citizen’ mindset, and be able to evaluate basic science and climate change within the context of geologic time,” she said. “The more they can come into contact with this knowledge, the better.”

Like Baldwin, Professor Ethan Baxter at Boston University said Bowring is a “remarkable” individual, imparting critical earth Science knowledge to his students.

Besides citing him as “the best zircon geochronologist in the world,” Baxter calls Bowring “a good doobie in general.”

Baxter is also a geochronologist, studying the formation of earth’s crust. Instead of zircon, however, Baxter uses garnets to date time.

Fingering a garnet that sits atop his office desk in the Stone science building on BU’s campus, Baxter explains the magic of unlocking the stories that each mineral holds about earth processes—processes related to the past and present.

“Anyone that studies earth history is always thinking about how can we take our information that we have from the past over those tens, to hundreds of thousands, to millions of years time scale, and then apply that to what’s happening today on the decadal time scale,” Baxter said.

Similar to Bowring’s findings in the Siberian Traps, Baxter has found evidence that links spurts of garnet growth around the world with ancient increases in CO2 emissions.

Though he acknowledges that there is still no “smoking gun” in relation to what caused the mass extinction in the Permian Period, Baxter said Bowring’s efforts to narrow the time frame have shown, increasingly, that there are great similarities between the environment then and now.

“Sam’s work with the methods they are using for zircon, he’s reached a resolution in time, which transcends everything we’ve ever dreamed of,” Baxter said.

But despite great leaps in scientific discovery, education lags behind, he said.

When you’re talking about pressing matters like climate change, resource depletion, water quality, sea level rise and the melting of the Arctic ice cap, Baxter said, you notice that comprehension starts with having a basic understanding of earth science.

“A lot of states don’t include it anymore,” Baxter said of earth science education. “It’s a real shame. I don’t think people have a disinterest—they have a lack of awareness.”

Stem Cells to Cure Disease

By Stephanie Smith

BU News Service


Despite the great debate over bioethical issues, stem cell research continues. Now, Boston-based researchers think they have hit upon a major development in stem cell studies, one which could benefit a large populations of patients suffering from inflammatory diseases.

A group of researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital have uncovered a way for adult stem cells to act as a “drug factory” at the site of inflammation in the body.

Speaking to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, researcher Jeffrey Karp said, “If you think of a cell as a drug factory, what we’re doing is targeting cell-based, drug factories to damaged or diseased tissues, where the cells can produce drugs at high enough levels to have a therapeutic effect.”


A graphic depiction of the cells acting as a drug factory to suppress the inflammation.
A graphic depiction of the cells acting as a drug factory to suppress the inflammation.

Lead author Oren Levy, PhD was cautiously optimistic about the discovery’s potential to treat certain diseases associated with inflammation, such as heart attack, multiple sclerosis, and even certain types of cancer.

“It’s important to not create false hope, but we do see a lot of progress to be made,” Levy said.

Levy, started the research venture to test his hypothesis that stem cells could be used to target a localized region of the body. The study, published on Aug. 21 in the scientific journal Blood, also included study authors Jeffrey Karp, Weian Zhao, Mehmet Fatih Yanik, and Charles Lin.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells – essentially cells that haven’t decided yet if they will become a blood cell, or a skin cell or any other kind of specialized cell. At the “stem cell” phase, these cells still have the potential to turn into any specialized cell. This study used adult stem cells, which are less controversial than embryonic stem cells only found in embryos that have not fully developed.

Researchers tweaked these adult stem cells using modified strands of mRNA, a type of single stranded genetic material similar to DNA that is naturally found in human cells. Upon mRNA insertion, the cells produced an anti-inflammatory protein, known as interleukin-10.

These modified human stem cells were injected into the bloodstream of a mouse with inflammation in the ear. The cells targeted the site of inflammation and released the interleukin-10 to reduce the swelling.

“We basically used the cells as a vehicle to deliver, and they did,” Levy said in prepared remarks.

Ultimately, the group was able to develop a type of cell that has the capability of reaching the site of inflammation and suppressing  it.

“If you think about biological therapeutic drugs, they’re a huge part of medicine, but there [are] still challenges,” he adds. “It’s hard to target them where you want them to act.”

Though this study looked at a simple local inflammation model in the ear of a mouse, the group hopes to target a clinically relevant model in the future for common conditions like inflammation in the wrists caused by arthritis. But, Levy warns, “This has a lot of potential happening in the next years to come, but it’s still early.”

This research garnered from the stem cell studies could potentially lead to treatments, or even cures, for diseases caused by chronic inflammation like atherosclerosis, arthritis, and even some cancers that progress due to inflammation.

Sarah Anderson, a student studying Economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) at age three. JRA affects more than 250,000 children. Since then, she has lived with the burden that inflammatory disease has on a patient and loved ones.

“I’ve been through it all—oral medications, steroid injections, which are super painful because they have to get directly to the bone, physical therapy, and now I’m on a weekly injection,” she said. “When initially being tested, and doctors telling my mom that it could be leukemia, she said that it was the worst year of her life.”

Although the steps toward treating larger scale diseases with this type of stem cell therapy will take time and additional progress in the lab, Levy and colleagues are optimistic about the future.

“We’re harvesting the knowledge that we already have to hopefully modify cells to go to any relevant organ that needs treating,” Levy said. “We see a lot of progress for autoimmune diseases and other inflammatory diseases.”

While researchers remain optimistic, patients, like Anderson, remain somewhat skeptical. “Since joint damage is a side effect of arthritis, when not treated, I would want to see how this medication works long term,” she said. “I would love a cure one day or to stop these inconvenient injections, but when it comes to my health, I need to know with certainty that the benefits outweigh any costs.”

Now, Anderson is on a weekly regime of injections and says that after suffering for 17 years she has finally controlled her symptoms. “I have only been off medication for one year over the last 17 and that was when I was in remission in second grade,” she said. “Luckily today, even though I am not in remission, I do have it under control, but the future remains a mystery.”

Researchers say that though they are making progress with the development of the drug, there will not be an opportunity for public use for several years.

“We’ll keep on trying and keep on optimizing the process until we get a maximal response,” Levy said. “We’ll keep an open mind until we solve it.”

Harvard/MIT Scientists Invent Light Sabers…Basically.

By Cassie Martin
BU News Service

Hold on to your seats, Star Wars fans, because what I’m about to tell you is seriously cool. Scientists from Harvard and MIT have created a new form of matter that they are comparing to light sabers.

One of the lead researchers behind this discovery, Harvard Physicist Mikhail Lukin, said in a written statement “The physics of what’s happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies.” Excuse me while my inner nerd jumps up and down with joy.

Toy versions of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battle in this recreated scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Photo courtesy of JD Hancock, Flickr Creative Commons.
Toy versions of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader battle in this recreated scene from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Photo courtesy of JD Hancock, Flickr Creative Commons.

But what is happening, exactly?

Essentially, the researchers created an environment where mass-less photons (light particles) interact so strongly with one another that they act as though they have mass and bind together, forming molecules. But Lukin and his colleagues didn’t use the force to bind the photons together. No, they needed something more substantial.

The researchers pumped a rubidium (highly reactive metal) atom cloud into a vacuum, cooled it to just above absolute-zero, and fired two photons into the cloud using a weak laser. The photons emerged from the cloud stuck together thanks to what’s called the Rydberg blockade — an effect where one photon has to pass off its energy to an atom and move forward before a second photon can excite other nearby atoms. This results in the two photons pushing and pulling each other through the cloud, Lukin explained. “…when they exit the medium they’re much more likely to do so together than as single photons,” he said. The research was published in Nature online September, 25.

No word yet on the creation of real light sabers (one can only hope), but there are potential practical applications for this new discovery including quantum computing and the formation of 3-D structures completely out of light.