Lasers have a unique ability to precisely drive, manipulate, control, and probe matter utilizing an incredible variety of methods. While they often operate behind the scenes, lasers are the backbone of revolutionary science and technology -- including research advances that were the basis for the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics.

A new laser architecture called the universal light modulator, an intriguing new tool to probe and control matter, will be presented during the Optical Society's (OSA) Laser Congress, 4-8 Nov., in Boston. It was developed by principal investigator Sergio Carbajo and research associate Wei Liu, both with the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University.

Coherent light, such as that from a laser, can embody a much more complex and sophisticated structure in either the electromagnetic or intensity distribution. "A few examples are cylindrical vector beams, or funky 3-D intensity distributions that may resemble, for instance, a waffle cone or an optical strainer," said Carbajo.

Because of these characteristics, the universal light modulator is poised to open up new scientific and technological frontiers. The catch is that exploiting the capacity for engineering or programming complex light structures is difficult because there are not many reliable options available to generate that structure, Carbajo said.

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