Scientists Discover New System To Control the Chaotic Behavior of Light

Light, an essential element of our existence, is not just a source of illumination; it’s the key to numerous technological breakthroughs that shape our modern world.

Physicist Andrea Alù, a distinguished professor and Einstein Professor of Physics at the CUNY Graduate Center, has likened the behavior of light to a game of billiards. Just as a slight variation in launching the cue ball leads to different trajectories on the billiard table, light exhibits similarly unpredictable behavior in chaotic systems.

“In billiards, tiny variations in the way you launch the cue ball will lead to different patterns of the balls bouncing around the table,” says Alù. “Light rays operate in a similar way in a chaotic cavity. It becomes difficult to predict what will happen because you could run an experiment many times with similar settings, and you’ll get a different response every time.”

In a recent study published in Nature Physics, a team of researchers at the CUNY Graduate Center introduced a groundbreaking platform for controlling the chaotic behavior of light. The research project was led by co-first authors Xuefeng Jiang and Shixiong Yin, both working in Alù’s lab.

Traditional Platforms vs. Chaotic Cavities

Conventional platforms for studying light’s behavior often utilize circular or regularly shaped resonant cavities. These cavities allow light to bounce and scatter in predictable patterns. For instance, in a circular cavity, only distinct frequencies (colors of light) survive, and each frequency is associated with a specific spatial pattern or mode.

However, such traditional platforms fail to fully capture the complexity of light’s behavior in complex scenarios. According to Jiang, in cavities that support chaotic patterns of light, any single frequency injected can excite thousands of light patterns, making it challenging to control the optical response.

The Innovative Stadium-Shaped Cavity

To tackle this challenge, the research team designed a unique stadium-shaped cavity with an open top and two channels directing light into the cavity. As incoming light scatters off the cavity walls and bounces around, a camera positioned above records the amount of light escaping the stadium and its spatial patterns.

The stadium cavity features knobs on its sides to manage the light intensity at the two inputs and control the delay between them. The opposing channels cause the light beams to interfere with each other inside the cavity, enabling the control of one beam’s scattering by the other. This process, known as coherent control, essentially uses light to control light.

Unlocking Control with Reflectionless Scattering Modes (RSMs)

This newfound control is made possible through a unique behavior of light in resonant cavities, referred to as “reflectionless scattering modes” (RSMs). While these modes were theoretically predicted, they had not been observed in optical cavity systems before.

According to Yin, the ability to manipulate RSMs allows for the efficient excitation and control of complex optical systems, with implications for energy storage, computing, and signal processing.

“At certain frequencies, our system can support two independent, overlapping RSMs, which prevent any light from reflecting back to our channel ports,” explains Yin. “This paves the way for better storage, routing, and control of light signals in complex optical platforms.”

The Road Ahead

The researchers are not stopping here. In future studies, they plan to incorporate additional knobs, providing even more control and flexibility to further unravel the intricacies of light behavior.

Harnessing and controlling light is a frontier in technological advancement, and it holds immense potential for shaping the future.

The research conducted by physicists like Andrea Alù and his team at the CUNY Graduate Center is paving the way for a new era of technological innovation, with implications for energy, computing, and communication.


  • How can controlling the chaotic behavior of light impact technology?
    Controlling light’s chaotic behavior has the potential to revolutionize energy storage, computing, and signal processing.
  • What are reflectionless scattering modes (RSMs)?
    RSMs are unique behaviors of light in resonant cavities that enable the efficient excitation and control of complex optical systems.
  • Why is light’s behavior in chaotic systems difficult to predict?
    Light in chaotic systems behaves unpredictably, much like the bouncing of billiard balls, making it challenging to model and predict.
  • What is the practical significance of using light to control light in the stadium-shaped cavity?
    It allows for better storage, routing, and control of light signals in complex optical platforms.
  • What’s next for research in this field?
    Researchers plan to incorporate additional controls, offering more degrees of freedom to explore the behavior of light further.

Published 2 November 2023, Nature Physics; “Coherent control of chaotic optical microcavity with reflectionless scattering modes”
DOI: 10.1038/s41567-023-02242-w

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