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Light can trigger coordinated, wavelike motions of atoms in atom-thin layers of crystal, scientists have shown. The waves, called phonon polaritons, are far shorter than light waves and can be "tuned" to particular frequencies and amplitudes by varying the number of layers of crystal, they report in the early online edition of Science March 7.

These properties -- observed in this class of material for the first time -- open the possibility of using polaritons to convey information in tight spaces, create images at far finer resolution than is possible with light, and manage the flow of heat in nanoscale devices.

"A wave on the surface of water is the closest analogy," said Dimitri Basov, professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, who led the project. "You throw a stone and you launch concentric waves that move outward. This is similar. Atoms are moving. The triggering event is illumination with light."

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