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Making a Black Hole with Metamaterials

The materials might one day be used to make “optical black holes” in the lab.

Metamaterials interact with light in weird ways. They can bend it around an object as if the object weren’t there, or narrow the resolution of microscopes down to a few nanometers.

It could soon be possible to use metamaterials to study the laws of physics, too.

Last week, Xiang Zhang, professor of materials science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leader in metamaterials research, published a paper in Nature Physics explaining the idea. He suggests that just as the movement of celestial bodies has provided important evidence for Einstein’s theory of relativity, so the movement of light through metamaterials that mimic curved space-time might be used to study the laws of physics.

However, unlike celestial bodies, metamaterials can be studied in controlled experiments. One design the researchers propose would act as an “optical black hole”–an object that has the same effect on light that a gravitational black hole has on matter.

Physicists have been working on ways to make objects analogous to black holes to study in the lab, and most of them require complex experimental setups. Zhang’s design, it seems, would not. Metamaterials that behave like black holes might find applications down the road in devices that slow and trap light.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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