Physics doesn’t always look exciting. Smashing particles and detecting gravitational waves happen at scales too minuscule for us to observe, and even if we could, even earth-shattering discoveries often appear as just a spike in a graph, or an aberration in the data.
Every so often, however, a physics experiment comes along that we actually can see, and sometimes those experiments are pretty darn cool. Take these videos from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where an X-ray laser blasts apart water droplets like the Death Star obliterates planets.
X-ray lasers are super-fast pulses of light at short wavelengths — and by super fast, we mean a quadrillionth-of-a-second fast. Combined with ultra-high-speed cameras, X-ray lasers are used to study how atoms and molecules move at high speeds when subjected to intense forces. These atoms are often immersed in liquid in order to bring them in front of the laser, and researchers wanted to study how the liquids themselves responded to being zapped. With this information, they could build accurate models that predict how a liquid behaves while being blasted with X-rays.
They tested both drops and streams of water, and the results are tasty eye-candy. The water droplets get vaporized within an instant, and the resulting debris expands outward, wreaking havoc on the surrounding drops. It’s kind of like watching that watermelon explode, except with a laser, which is so much cooler than waiting for rubber bands to do the job.
When testing the laser on a stream of water, the results were equally spectacular — the pulse separated the water and the parted streams are pushed backward. If you watch closely, you can see shock waves ripple through the water in the aftermath of the laser pulse.
While water droplets may be a far cry from the Death Star, it’s worth remembering these explosions are being filmed at frame rates equivalent to millionths of a second — the camera captures only about one ten-thousandth of a second total. Even at such high speeds, the laser does its work in what appears to be a split-second, and we get to watch the resulting carnage ripple outward in slow motion.