The Brightest Light Ever Built Could Change the Way We See the World

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Scientists at Nebraska's Extreme Light Laboratory used the Diocles laser to outshine the sun — and that's no easy task. By Grycaj/Shutterstock

Some lights, like our sun, are bright enough to guide us down this tunnel we call life.

Other lights change the way we see the tunnel.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln may have built the brightest light the world has ever known — brighter, they say, than a billion suns.

And it may reveal our world in a whole new light.

Photons 101

To understand the magnitude of this development, we need to first understand the nature of light.

When energy from the sun, or even a humble flashlight, hits a surface, photons are scattered. Dispersed one at a time, these photons illuminate our world, basically creating what we know as vision.

For about 4.5 billion years, the sun has reliably terrorized photons for our benefit — and light bulbs, more recently, have pitched in.

But scientists (who always seem to have a thing with light bulbs) have managed to outdo even the sun, according to findings published in the June 26 issue of Nature Photonics.

They trained a powerful laser, called the Diocles, at electrons suspended in helium. The photons from those electrons scattered at an unprecedented rate — according to the study, a whopping 1,000 photons scattered at the same time.

“When we have this unimaginably bright light, it turns out that the scattering — this fundamental thing that makes everything visible — fundamentally changes in nature,” noted lead researcher Donald Umstadter told the science journal

Now, here’s the world-changing part. When a photon scatters, it does so in a very predictable way: same angle, same energy.

Hence, an object we see in this light looks the same every time we see it.

The mega-super-ultra light (scientists haven't given it a name yet, so we took the liberty) scatters photons at an energy and angle that's entirely new.

Imagine a light so bright it bends reality... into more reality, revealing things we never knew existed.

Wrapping your head around this bright light

“It’s as if things appear differently as you turn up the brightness of the light, which is not something you normally would experience,” Umstadter explained. “(An object) normally becomes brighter, but otherwise, it looks just like it did with a lower light level. But here, the light is changing (the object’s) appearance. The light’s coming off at different angles, with different colors, depending on how bright it is.”

So while this super light isn’t something you want in your face, it may be something for your inner space.

The scientists see a bright future for the megalight in illuminating our own bodies. The light, which can act like an X-ray, may be able to show us tumors too tiny or too hidden for conventional scans. (And speaking of scans, airport security could manage to get even more invasive.)

Then, of course, there’s the everyday world we live in. This light promises to show us things not even the sun, in all its millions of years with us, never bothered to reveal.