Tractor Beam No Longer Science Fiction

Top 10

Discovery has Potential Medical Applications

The creation of the first acoustic tractor beam by a team including physics professor Gabriel Spalding and alumnus Patrick Dahl ’12 was named a top 10 breakthrough in 2014 in physics, as judged by Physics World magazine.

The international team of researchers used energy from an ultrasound array to exert force behind a centimeter-sized object and pull it toward the energy source. Physics World wrote: “a staple of science fiction, a tractor beam seems to defy physics by pulling an object towards the source of an outgoing beam that carries momentum.”

Gabe and Patrick
Patrick Dahl ’12 and Prof. Gabe Spalding

Heralded around the globe in dozens of news outlets, the discovery has the immediate potential for many applications in medicine. One goal is to improve ultrasound surgery used to treat and destroy tumors more effectively and efficiently. The technique could also deliver encapsulated drugs to the exact location in the body requiring treatment.

Spalding’s decades-long work on ultrasound technology, often involving IWU undergraduates, was featured in IWU Magazine in fall 2014. Dahl’s journey from a first-year music education major to IWU physics graduate working alongside researchers at one of the top research facilities in the United Kingdom is also chronicled in the fall issue.

 Experimental Physics

Illinois Wesleyan students have the opportunity to explore physics hands-on with dozens of laboratory course options, including experimental physics – where students can "put everything else aside and get into the lab and play," Spalding says.

In this video, students describe their research in optics, lasers and quantum phenomena – and how they're working to detect phonons, not just reading about them.