Researchers explore the billiard dynamics of photon collisions

May 20, 2016, The Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences
Ultra-peripheral collisions of lead nuclei at the LHC accelerator can lead to elastic collisions of photons with photons. Credit: IFJ PAN

When one snooker ball hits another, both spring away from each other in an elastic manner. In the case of two photons, a similar process, the elastic collision, has never been observed. Physicists from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences have shown, however, that such a process does not only occur, but could even soon be registered in heavy ion collisions at the LHC accelerator.

When collide with each other, do they act like billiard balls, springing away from each other in different directions? Such a course of interaction between particles of light has never been observed, even in the LHC, the most powerful accelerator in the world. An observation may, however, happen soon, thanks to a highly detailed analysis of the course of events in such a collision, conducted by physicists from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ PAN) in Krakow, Poland, published in the journal Physical Review C.

Preliminary analysis of the elastic scattering of a photon-photon collision was presented several years ago in a study by scientists from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Krakow scientists, however, have examined the process in much finer detail. Not did they establish that collisions occur, they have taken into account more mechanisms of interaction between photons and predicted the directions in which most photons will scatter post-collision—and whether they can be measured. The results suggest that at least some of the photons deflected as a result of elastic collisions should hit the detectors installed by the ATLAS, CMS and ALICE projects. If the described phenomenon actually occurs, and by all appearances it will, observation would become possible within the next few years.

"Elastic collisions of photons with photons seemed, until recently, very unlikely. Many physicists regarded the registration of such collisions in the LHC as impossible. Meanwhile, we have proven that the phenomenon can be seen, though not in the collisions of protons, which occur much more frequently", says Prof. Antoni Szczurek (IFJ PAN).

The LHC collides beams of protons with protons, or beams with lead nuclei. The IFJ PAN had shown earlier that if the collisions of protons occurred for elastic collisions between photons, the process would not be visible—it would obscure photons emitted by a different mechanism (initiated by gluons, the particles carrying the strong nuclear force). Luckily, the Polish scientists had some other ideas in store.

According to the rules of classical optics, light cannot be affected by light. Photons, however, can interact with each other through quantum processes. When two photons fly next to each other within that extremely short instant, there is nothing preventing the creation of 'virtual' loops of quarks or leptons (which include electrons, muons, tau particles, neutrinos and the antiparticles associated with them). Such particles would be termed virtual, as they would be impossible to see. However, despite this, they would be responsible for the interaction between photons, after which they would again be transformed into 'real' photons. To the outside observer, the whole process would look like one photon reflected by the other photon.

Unfortunately, the energy of the photons generated by even the most powerful contemporary light sources can be registered only in millions of electron volts. These are miniscule values, even by the standards of modern and particle physics. At these energies, the probability of a collision with a photon-photon quantum process is infinitesimal, and the streams of photons necessary for its occurence would have to be colossal.

"In this situation, we decided to see whether elastic collisions of photons involving virtual particles can occur during collisions of heavy ions. And it worked! Large electric charges in the nuclei of lead may, in fact, lead to the creation of photons. If the process occurs in collisions of nuclei which have just passed, the photon generated by one nucleus has a chance to collide with photons produced by the second. We calculated that the probability of such a course of events is admittedly small, but nonzero. So everything indicates that the process could be observed," says Dr. Mariola Klusek-Gawenda.

Interestingly, the collisions studied theoretically by the Krakow physicists were very specific, as they did not analyze direct collisions of lead nuclei with one another as such, but processes without direct contact between nuclei. Interaction occurs between the electromagnetic fields of two atomic nuclei, which can fly even from long distances between them. These collisions are known as ultra-peripheral.

Potentially, photons can interact with each other as a result of another process—when a quantum transforms into virtual mesons, or quark-antiquark pairs. The mesons produced could interact with each other via the strong nuclear force, the fundamental force responsible for binding quarks inside protons and neutrons. The physicists from the IFJ PAN were the first to present this mechanism. It seems, however, that the observation of light with participation at the event will not be possible: The gentle photons bouncing off each other just fly next to the detectors currently operating at the LHC.

The study of photon-photon elastic collisions not only provides a better understanding of known physics. Quantum processes carrying the interaction between photons could potentially be involved as elementary particles, something we do not yet know. So if measurements of elastic scattering of photons off photons provided results other than those predicted by Krakow physicists, this could be a signal leading to a completely new physics engaged in the phenomena.

Explore further: An experiment seeks to make quantum physics visible to the naked eye

More information: Mariola Kłusek-Gawenda et al, Light-by-light scattering in ultraperipheral Pb-Pb collisions at energies available at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, Physical Review C (2016). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevC.93.044907

Provided by: The Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences

103 shares

Related Stories

Quantum physics inside a drop of paint

May 12, 2016

Inside a drop of paint, light is scattered so often that it seems impossible to demonstrate quantum effects. But despite the thousands of possible paths the light can take, like a drunk person inside a labyrinth, researchers ...

Is this the trailer for the upcoming LHC blockbuster?

March 3, 2016

In light of the latest analysis on the decay of beauty mesons, the dawn of a 'new physics', may be approaching. An important contribution to the analysis has been made by physicists from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of ...

Researchers develop ideal single-photon source

September 7, 2015

With the help of a semiconductor quantum dot, physicists at the University of Basel have developed a new type of light source that emits single photons. For the first time, the researchers have managed to create a stream ...

Leiden physicists entangle four rotating photons

February 3, 2016

For the first time, scientists have entangled four photons in their orbital angular momentum. Leiden physicists sent a laser through a crystal, thereby creating four photons with coupled 'rotation'. So far this has only been ...

Recommended for you

Researchers report innovative optical tissue imaging method

October 15, 2018

A UK-wide research team, led by the University of St Andrews, has developed an innovative new way to optically image through tissue, which could allow for a more detailed understanding and diagnosis of the early stages of ...

Quantum computers tackle big data with machine learning

October 15, 2018

Every two seconds, sensors measuring the United States' electrical grid collect 3 petabytes of data – the equivalent of 3 million gigabytes. Data analysis on that scale is a challenge when crucial information is stored ...

Disrupting crystalline order to restore superfluidity

October 15, 2018

What if you could disrupt the crystalline order of quantum matter so that a superfluid could flow freely even at temperatures and pressures where it usually does not? This idea has been demonstrated by a team of scientists ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.