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Losing Individuality: The Electron’s Identity Crisis

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Posted October 7, 2015
This news or article is intended for readers with certain scientific or professional knowledge in the field.

According to a UA theoretical physicist, electrons in high magnetic fields in some solid crystal stop looking like the “hard balls” we imagine them to be — and start looking like one big blob.

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Electrons are the negatively charged subatomic particles we all came to know and love in secondary school.

J.J. Thomson discovered them in 1896. They whizz around the nucleus in a cloud, forming a universally recognizable symbol for “science,” and they are the tiny, unsung workhorses behind much of modern tech, from radiation therapy to microscopes.

Although we grew up picturing electrons as individual, solid balls, a recent theoretical study of electron behavior in high magnetic fields, by University of Arizona physics professor Andrei Lebed, is challenging that perception.

His recent study, accepted into Physical Review Letters and funded by a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant, found that while this familiar “hard ball” idea of electrons works in a vacuum, electrons behave differently — and undergo some curious changes — when placed in tilted, high magnetic fields.

Soviet theoretical physicist Lev Landau developed the Landau-Fermi liquid theory in 1956. His theory essentially states that electrons can change mass and become anisotropic but should still be thought of as hard balls that scatter on one another. Together, this sea of hard balls could be referred to as “Fermi-liquid.” In 1962, Landau was awarded a Nobel Prize for this and other work.

But according to Lebed, this does not hold up for electrons in a tilted, high magnetic field.

Instead, they start showing collective behavior, losing their individuality and blending into a liquid blob. Sometimes the electrons will disappear completely. New particles will replace them in the form of Luttinger bosons, named after the Luttinger liquid theory, which may explain this collective behavior of electrons.

Only a few laboratories — maybe six or seven — in the world have the capacity to run the kind of experiment Lebed’s paper proposes. In particular, testing his findings would require a tilted magnetic field something along the order of 30 Tesla.

Six years ago, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida, the largest and highest-powered magnet lab in the world, conducted an experiment similar to the kind Lebed proposes.

“It’s very possible that some features of our own theory have already been observed in this experiment,” Lebed said.

Although his own end of the research project wrapped up in late August, Lebed is working to partner with some of these experimental labs across the globe in the hope of putting his theoretical findings to the test.

Source: University of Arizona

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