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Into the Vortex

In physics professor Mark Siemens’ lab, undergraduate and graduate students explore the laser’s potential as a tool for quantum computing and mechanics. Using $10 lasers, the researchers study the dynamics of the vortices created when they shine the beams through and against various surfaces—Scotch tape, perhaps, or even a liquid crystal panel. 

Siemens and graduate student Patrick Ford align a beam into a laser trap. Ford’s research uses the propagation of light in water to study quantum fluids.
Photography by Allison Daniell, Stellar Propeller Studio
Rows of tiny stars emerge when a laser passes through a liquid-crystal panel.

The way in which these vortices dance and interact offers researchers the chance to identify unexpected connections. “When we looked at the statistics of how those vortices moved, it’s exactly like what you see in quantum fluids like superfluid helium, and gives us direct access to exotic quantum physics,” Siemens says. 

Elsewhere in the lab, undergraduate physics and math major Leah Huzjak works on precision generation of an optical vortex.

“One application that we’re pursuing with these vortices is quantum computing, which can be used to calculate solutions to a lot of important problems,” he adds. It may help develop new materials for, say, solar panels or next-generation medicines. 

Siemens and graduate student Drew Voitiv (BS ’20) explore new ideas about quantum dynamics and control of optical vortices.
When inspiration strikes, researchers turn to a nearby white board to sketch new concepts.

Siemens’ research is supported by a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation and multiple grants from the National Science Foundation.  

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