Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Wow - a really surprising result!

The cover story on the latest issue of Phys. Rev. Letters is quite surprising! A group in Italy have performed what a colleague of mine called a "hero experiment": they've taken linearly polarized light, and passed it through a 3 m long ultrahigh vacuum cavity in a rotating 5.5 T magnetic field. The shocking result is that they observe that the polarization of the light rotates because of the magnetic field. Basically they've measured a magnetic dichroism of vacuum. This is unexpected, and ordinarily it really shouldn't happen - it implies that the photons from their laser are interacting in a very nontrivial way with the (virtual) photons that make up the magnetic field. One way this could happen would be via a two-photon scattering process involving a never-before-seen neutral, spinless, very low mass particle. The paper is also remarkable for being the only PRL I've ever seen that's over the four page length limit of the journal, and for appearing without some enormously overblown marketing in the form of press releases.

This could be a very very big deal if confirmed. There is already one idea for an independent test of this. I would imagine that it would have major astrophysical consequences, too. After all, the hypothesized mechanism would lead to an effect quadratic in magnetic field, and the fields around astrophysical objects like neutron stars can be millions of times bigger than the field used in this experiment....

22 comments:

Matt B. said...

What about the WMAP results?

Leucipo said...

It is also remarkable that it has not got a high impact yer, even though it was available as a preprint.

Doug Natelson said...

Regarding WMAP, I really don't know much about how much of their analysis is based on their polarization data, and how much is based on the extremely fine temperature data. Certainly astrophysical limits should be very important....

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