Skip to main content
Verne M. Willaman Gateway to the Sciences.

$7.5 million DoD grant supports the exploration of exotic physics in synthetic dimensions

3 May 2022
Mikael Rechtsman

Theoretical physicists have never been afraid to push beyond the bounds of reality to make predictions about systems that don’t actually exist in nature, but which could exist in an imagined physical world—one with, for example, four or more spatial dimensions. A Penn State-led team will use advanced fabrication technology to create tunable systems of photons, or particles of light, as well as trapped, supercooled atoms to probe exotic physical scenarios such as these. They will use them to make new connections and discoveries both within and beyond conventional physics. These connections could eventually inform new ways of manipulating large amounts of quantum information for computing or secure communication and could provide new insights for the development of new technologies for navigation.

Mikael Rechtsman, associate professor of physics at Penn State, will lead the team, which has been awarded a 5-year $7.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant by the U.S. Department of Defense, through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Since its inception in 1985, the tri-Service MURI program has supported teams of investigators with the hope that collective insight from fundamental research across multiple disciplines could facilitate the growth of newly emerging technologies.

Rechtsman’s project is titled “Reimagining Atoms and Photons in SYnthetic, DYnamical, and Interacting Quantum matter (RAPSYDY IN Q).” The central purpose of the proposed research is to use both trapped photons and atoms to create exotic physical scenarios by emulating new synthetic dimensions that allow them to probe the properties of the systems that are beyond conventional observation.

“We’ve assembled a team with experimental and theoretical expertise in both photonic and atomic systems that we hope will allow a cross-pollination between the two fields that leads to fundamentally new physics,” said Rechtsman. “This grant will allow us to explore the properties of these exotic systems that go beyond what we observe in our natural world.  For example, by fabricating chips that trap light in such a way that it `thinks’ that it is living in a four-dimensional universe, we can use insight from higher-dimensional physics to find new ways to manipulate light in the real world.”

The project team includes researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Maryland, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology. The MURI funding from the Air Force will support graduate students and postdocs, as well as enable each of the research groups to carry out experiments and theoretical investigations.

“By supporting teams whose members have diverse sets of expertise, the MURI program acknowledges that the complexities of modern science and engineering challenges often intersect more than one discipline and require creative and diverse approaches to tackle these problems,” said Bindu Nair, Director, Basic Research Office, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “This cross-fertilization of ideas can accelerate research progress to enable more rapid R&D breakthroughs and hasten the transition of basic research findings to practical application. It is a program that signifies a legacy of scientific impact and remains a cornerstone of the DoD’s basic research portfolio.”

For the fiscal year 2022 competition, the Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Office of Naval Research solicited proposals in 26 topic areas of strategic importance to the Department. From a merit-based review of approximately 340 proposals received, a panel of experts narrowed the proposals to a subset, from which 28 final awards were selected.

Rechtsman is also co-principal investigator on another DoD funded MURI award, in which he joins a team led by Princeton to investigate “hyperuniform” structured matter.