Through the optical-mechanical analogy, metamaterials and other advanced optical materials can be used to study such celestial phenomena as black holes, strange attractors and gravitational lenses. Here an air-GaInAsP metamaterial mimics a photon-sphere, one of the key black hole phenomena in its interactions with light. (Credit: Xiang Zhang)
Even Albert Einstein might have been impressed. His theory of general relativity, which describes how the gravity of a massive object, such as a star, can curve space and time, has been successfully used to predict such astronomical observations as the bending of starlight by the sun, small shifts in the orbit of the planet Mercury and the phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. Now, however, it may soon be possible to study the effects of general relativity in bench-top laboratory experiments.
Xiang Zhang, a faculty scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and professor at the University of California Berkeley, lead a study in which it was determined that the interactions of light and matter with spacetime, as predicted by general relativity, can be studied using the new breed of artificial optical materials that feature extraordinary abilities to bend light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation.
“We propose a link between the newly emerged field of artificial optical materials to that of celestial mechanics, thus opening a new possibility to investigate astronomical phenomena in a table-top laboratory setting,” says Zhang. “We have introduced a new class of specially designed optical media that can mimic the periodic, quasi-periodic and chaotic motions observed in celestial objects that have been subjected to complex gravitational fields.”