A technique capable of measuring the extremely weak forces exerted by light – forces smaller than one piconewton – has been developed by scientists at the University of Bristol.
It is well established that light exerts a momentum in the direction of propagation, solar sail propulsion on a spacecraft being just one example of this effect. Surprisingly, light can also carry linear momentum perpendicular to its propagation direction. This component originates from a field-theory construction introduced by Dutch physicist Frederik Jozef Belinfante more than 70 years ago, and it has remained unobserved until now.
The Bristol team, led by Dr Massimo Antognozzi of the School of Physics, used unique nano-sensors to confirm the existence of this extraordinary momentum of light and a new toolkit to study light-matter interaction with unprecedented sensitivity.
The research, reported in the journal Nature Physics, was an international collaboration between research groups in the UK, Japan, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine, and is predicted to have significant implications in the way scientists describe light and the momentum it carries when interacting with matter.