Wednesday, September 18, 2019

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter PI Meeting, day 3 and wrapup

On the closing day of the PI meeting, some further points and wrap-up:

  • I had previously missed work that shows that electric field can modulate magnetic exchange in ultrathin iron (overview).
  • Ferroelectric layers can modulate transport in spin valves by altering the electronic energetic alignment at interfaces.  This can result in some unusual response (e.g., the sign of the magnetoresistance can flip with the sign of the current, implying spin-diode-like properties).
  • Artificial spin ices are still cool model systems.  With photoelectron emission microscopy (PEEM), it's possible to image ultrathin, single-domain structures to reveal their mangetization noninvasively.  This means movies can be made showing thermal fluctuations of the spin ice constituents, revealing the topological character of the magnetic excitations in these systems.  
  • Ultrathin oxide membranes mm in extent can be grown, detached from their growth substrates, and transferred or stacked.  When these membranes are really thin, it becomes difficult to nucleate cracks, allowing the membranes to withstand large strains (several percent!), opening up the study of strain effects on a variety of oxide systems.
  • Controlled growth of stacked phthalocyanines containing transition metals can generate nice model systems for studying 1d magnetism, even using conventional (large-area) methods like vibrating sample magnetometry.
  • In situ oxide MBE and ARPES, plus either vacuum annealing or ozone annealing, has allowed the investigation of the BSCCO superconducting phase diagram over the whole range of dopings, from severely underdoped to so overdoped that superconductivity is completely suppressed.  In the overdoped limit, analyzing the kink found in the band dispersion near the antinode, it seems superconductivity is suppressed at high doping because the coupling (to the mode that causes the kink) goes to zero at large doping.  
  • It's possible to grow nice films of C60 molecules on Bi2Se3 substrates, and use ARPES to see the complicated multiple valence bands at work in this system.  Moreover, by doing measurements as a function of the polarization of the incoming light, the particular molecular orbitals contributing to those bands can be identified.
  • Through careful control of conditions during vacuum filtration, it's possible to produce dense, locally crystalline films of aligned carbon nanotubes.  These have remarkable optical properties, and with the anisotropy of their electronic structure plus ultraconfined character, it's possible to get exciton polaritons in these into the ultrastrong coupling regime.
Overall this was a very strong meeting - the variety of topics in the program is impressive, and the work shown in the talks and posters was uniformly interesting and of high quality. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter PI Meeting, Day 2

Among the things I heard about today, as I wondered whether newly formed Tropical Storm Imelda would make my trip home a challenge:

  • In "B20" magnetic compounds, where the crystal structure is chiral but lacks mirror or inversion symmetry, a phase can form under some circumstances that is a spontaneous lattice of skyrmions.  By adding disorder through doping, it is possible to un-pin that lattice.
  • Amorphous cousins of those materials still show anomalous Hall effect (AHE), even though the usual interpretation these days of the AHE is as a consequence of Berry phase in momentum space that is deeply connected to having a lattice.  It's neat to see that some Berry physics survives even when the lattice does not.
  • There is a lot of interest in coupling surface states of topological insulators to ferromagnets, including using spin-orbit torque to switch the magnetization direction of a ferromagnetic insulator.
  • You could also try to switch the magnetization of \(\alpha-Fe_{2}O_{3}\) using spin-orbit torques, but watch out when you try to cram too much current through a 2 nm thick Pt film.
  • The interlayer magnetic exchange in van der Waals magnets continues to be interesting and rich.
  • Heck, you could look at several 2D materials with various kinds of reduced symmetry, to see what kinds of spin-orbit torques are possible.
  • It's always fun to find a material where there are oscillations in magnetization with applied field even though the bulk is an insulator.
  • Two-terminal devices made using (Weyl superconducting) MoTe2 show clear magnetoresistance signatures, indicating supercurrents carried along the material edges.
  • By side-gating graphene structures hooked up to superconductors, you can also make a superconducting quantum intereference device using edge states of the fractional quantum Hall effect.
  • In similar spirit, coupling a 2D topological insulator (1T'-WTe2) to a superconductor (NbSe2) means it's possible to use scanning tunneling spectroscopy to see induced superconducting properties in the edge state.
  • Just in time, another possible p-wave superconductor.
  • In a special stack sandwiching a TI between two magnetic TI layers, it's possible to gate the system to break inversion symmetry, and thus tune between quantum anomalous Hall and "topological Hall" response.
  • Via a typo on a slide, I learned of the existence of the Ohion, apparently the smallest quantized amount of Ohio.

DOE experimental condensed matter PI meeting, day 1

The first day of the DOE ECMP PI meeting was very full, including two poster sessions.  Here are a few fun items:

  • Transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs) can have very strongly bound excitons, and if two different TMDs are stacked, you can have interlayer excitons, where the electron and hole reside in different TMD layers, perhaps separated by a layer or two of insulating hBN.  Those interlayer excitons can have long lifetimes, undergo Bose condensation, and have interesting optical properties.  See here, for example.   
  • Heterojunctions of different TMDs can produce moire lattices even with zero relative twist, and the moire coupling between the layers can strongly affect the optical properties via the excitons.
  • Propagating plasmons in graphene can have surprisingly high quality factors (~ 750), and combined with their strong confinement have interesting potential.
  • You can add AlAs quantum wells to the list of materials systems in which it is possible to have very clean electronic transport and see fractional quantum Hall physics, which is a bit different because of the valley degeneracy in the AlAs conduction band (that can be tuned by strain).
  • And you can toss in WSe2 in there, too - after building on this and improving material quality even further.
  • There continues to be progress in trying to interface quantum Hall edge states with superconductors, with the end goal of possible topological quantum computing.  A key question is understanding how the edge states undergo Andreev processes at superconducting contacts.
  • Application of pressure can take paired quantum Hall states (like those at \(\nu = 5/2, 7/2\)) and turn them into unpaired nematic states, a kind of quantum phase transition.  
  • With clever (and rather involved) designs, it is possible to make high quality interferometers for fractional quantum Hall edge states, setting the stage for detailed studies of exotic anyons.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

DOE Experimental Condensed Matter PI meeting, 2019

The US Department of Energy's Basic Energy Sciences component of the Office of Science funds a lot of basic scientific research, and for the last decade or so had a tradition of regular gatherings of their funded principal investigators for a number of programs.  Every two years there has been a PI meeting for the Experimental Condensed Matter Physics program, and this year's meeting starts tomorrow.

These meetings are very educational (at least for me) and, because of their modest size, a much better networking setting than large national conferences.  In past years I've tried to write up brief highlights of the meetings (for 2017, see a, b, c; for 2015 see a, b, c; for 2013 see a, b).   I will try to do this again; the format of the meeting has changed to include more poster sessions, which makes summarizing trickier, but we'll see.

update:  Here are my write-ups for day 1, day 2, and day 3.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Faculty position at Rice - Astronomy

Faculty position in Astronomy at Rice University

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position in astronomy in the general field of galactic star formation and planet formation, including exoplanet characterization. We seek an outstanding theoretical, observational, or computational astronomer whose research will complement and extend existing activities in these areas within the department. In addition to developing an independent and vigorous research program, the successful applicant will be expected to teach, on average, one undergraduate or graduate course each semester, and contribute to the service missions of the department and university. The department expects to make the appointment at the assistant professor level. A Ph.D. in astronomy/astrophysics or related field is required.

Applications for this position must be submitted electronically at Applicants will be required to submit the following: (1) cover letter; (2) curriculum vitae; (3) statement of research; (4) teaching statement; (5) PDF copies of up to three publications; and (6) the names, affiliations, and email addresses of three professional references. We will begin reviewing applications December 1, 2019. To receive full consideration, all application materials must be received by January 10, 2020. The appointment is expected to begin in July, 2020.

Rice University is an Equal Opportunity Employer with a commitment to diversity at all levels, and considers for employment qualified applicants without regard to race, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, genetic information, disability, or protected veteran status. We encourage applicants from diverse backgrounds to apply.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Faculty position at Rice - Theoretical Biological Physics

Faculty position in Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University

As part of the Vision for the Second Century (V2C2), which is focused on investments in research excellence, Rice University seeks faculty members, preferably at the assistant professor level, starting as early as July 1, 2020, in all areas of theoretical biological physics. Successful candidates will lead dynamic, innovative, and independent research programs supported by external funding, and will excel in teaching at the graduate and undergraduate levels, while embracing Rice’s culture of excellence and diversity.

This search will consider applicants from all science and engineering disciplines. Ideal candidates will pursue research with strong intellectual overlap with physics, chemistry, biosciences, bioengineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, or other related disciplines. Applicants pursuing all styles of theory and computation integrating the physical and life sciences are encouraged to apply.

For full details and to apply, please visit  Applicants should please submit the following materials: (1) cover letter, including the names and contact information for three references, (2) curriculum vitae, (3) research statement, and (4) statement of teaching philosophy. Application review will commence no later than October 15, 2019 and continue until the position is filled. Candidates must have a PhD or equivalent degree and outstanding potential in research and teaching. We particularly encourage applications from women and members of historically underrepresented groups who bring diverse cultural experiences and who are especially qualified to mentor and advise members of our diverse student population.

Rice University, located in Houston, Texas, is an Equal Opportunity Employer with commitment to diversity at all levels, and considers for employment qualified applicants without regard to race, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, genetic information, disability, or protected veteran status.

Big questions about condensed matter (part 3)

More questions asked by Ross McKenzie's son about the culture/history of condensed matter physics:

3.  What are the most interesting historical anecdotes?  What are the most significant historical events?  Who were the major players?

The first couple of these are hard to address in anything resembling an unbiased way.  For events that happened before I was in the field, I have to rely on stories I've read or things I've heard.  Certainly the discovery of superconductivity by Onnes is a good example - where they thought that they had an experimental problem with their wiring, until they realized that their voltmeter reading dropping to zero (trying to measure the voltage drop across some mercury in the presence of a known current) happened at basically the same temperature every time.  (Pretty good for 1911!).  Major experimental results very often have fun story components.  From my thesis adviser, I'd heard lots of stories about the discovery of superfluidity in 3He, including plugging a leaky vacuum flange using borax; thinking up the experiment while recovering from a broken leg skiing accident; the wee-hour phone call to the adviser.   He also told me a story about this paper, where he and Gerry Dolan came up with a very clever way to see tiny deviations away from a mostly linear current-voltage curve, an observation connected with weak localization that paved the way for a lot of mesoscopic physics work.   

There are fun theory stories, too.  Bob Laughlin figuring out the theory of the fractional quantum Hall effect while stuck in a trailer at Livermore because his clearance paperwork hadn't come through yet.

Other stories I've read in books.  Strong recommendations for Crystal Fire; the less popular/more scholarly Out of the Crystal MazeOhl's discovery of the photovoltaic effect in silicon.  The story about how Bell Labs and IBM researchers may or may not have traded hints poolside in Las Vegas about how to get field-effect transistors really working.  Shockley's inability to manage people eventually resulting in Silicon Valley.  

These aren't necessarily the best anecdotes, but they have elements of interest.  I'm sure there are many out there who could tell fun stories.

As for the major players, it seems that everyone mentioned on Prof. McKenzie's post and in the comments are theorists.  That seems limiting.  It's fair to talk about theorists if you're concentrating on theoretical developments, but experimentalists have often opened up whole areas.  Onnes liquefied helium and discovered superconductivity.  Laue invented x-ray diffraction.  Brattain made transistors.  Nick Holonyak was an inventor of the light emitting diode, which has been revolutionary.   Binnig and Rohrer invented the STM.  Bednorz and Muller discovered the cuprates.  

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Big questions about condensed matter (part 2)

Continuing, another question asked by Ross McKenzie's son:

2. Scientific knowledge changes with time. Sometimes long-accepted ``facts''  and ``theories'' become overturned? What ideas and results are you presenting that you are almost absolutely certain of? What might be overturned?

I think this question is framed interestingly.  Physics in general and condensed matter in particular is a discipline where the overturning of long-accepted ideas has often really meant a clearer appreciation and articulation about the limits of validity of models, rather than a wholesale revision of understanding. 

For example, the Mermin-Wagner theorem is often mentioned as showing that one cannot have true two-dimensional crystals (this would be a breaking of continuous translational symmetry).  However, the existence of graphene and other atomically thin systems like transition metal dichalcogenides, and the existence of magnetic order in some of those materials, are experimentally demonstrated.  That doesn't mean that Mermin-Wagner is mathematically incorrect.  It means that one must be very careful in defining what is meant by "truly two-dimensional". 

There are many things in condensed matter that are as "absolutely certain" as anything gets in science.  The wave nature of x-rays, electrons, and neutrons plus the spatial periodicity of matter in crystals leads to clear diffraction patterns.  That same spatial periodicity strongly influences the electronic properties of crystals (Bloch's theorem, labeling of states by some wavevector-like parameter \(\mathbf{k}\), some energy dependence of those states \(E(\mathbf{k})\)).   More broadly, there are phases of matter that can be classified by symmetries and topology, with distinct macroscopic properties.  The macroscopic phases that are seen in equilibrium are those that correspond to the largest number of microscopic configurations subject to any overall constraints (that's the statistical physics basis for thermodynamics).  Amazingly, knowing the ground state electronic density of a system everywhere means its possible in principle to calculate just about everything about the ground state.

Leaving those aside, asking what might be overturned is a bit like asking where we might find either surprises or mistakes in the literature.  Sometimes seemingly established wisdom does get upset.  One recent example:  For a couple of decades, it's been thought that Sr2RuO4 is likely a spin-triplet superconductor, where the electron pairs are p-wave paired (have net orbital angular momentum), and is an electronic analog to the A phase of  superfluid 3He.  Recent results suggest that this is not correct, and that the early evidence for this is not seen in new measurements.   There are probably more things like this out there, but it's hard to speculate.  Bear in mind, though, that science is supposed to work like this.  In the long run, the truth will out.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Big questions about condensed matter physics (pt 1)

Ross McKenzie, blogger of Condensed Concepts, is working on a forthcoming book, a Very Short Introduction about condensed matter physics.  After reading some sample chapters, his son posed some questions about the field, and Prof. McKenzie put forward some of his preliminary answers here.  These are fun, thought-provoking topics, and I regret being so busy writing other things that I haven't had a chance to think about these as much as I'd like.  Still, here are some thoughts.

1. What do you think is the coolest or most exciting thing that CMP has discovered? 

Tricky.  There are some things that are very intellectually profound and cool to the initiated that would not strike an average person as cool or exciting.  The fractional quantum Hall effect was completely surprising.  I heard a story about Dan Tsui looking at the data coming in on a strip chart recorder (Hall voltage as a function of time as the magnetic field was swept), roughly estimating the magnetic field from the graph with the span of his fingers, realizing that they were seeing a Hall plateau that seemed to imply a charge of 1/3 e, and saying, jokingly, "Quarks!"  In fact, there really are fractionally charged excitations in that system.  That's very cool, and but not something any non-expert would appreciate. 

Prof. McKenzie votes for superconductivity, and that's definitely up there.  In some ways, superfluidity is even wilder.  Kamerlingh Onnes, the first to liquefy helium and cool it below the superfluid transition, somehow missed discovering superfluidity, which had to wait for Kapitsa and independently Allen in 1937.  Still, it is very weird - fluid flowing without viscosity through tiny pores, and climbing walls (!).   While it's less useful than superconductivity, you can actually see its weird properties readily with the naked eye.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

ACS symposium - Chemistry in Real Space and Time

On Sunday I was fortunate enough to be able to speak at the first day of a week-long symposium at the American Chemical Society national meeting in San Diego, titled "Chemistry in Real Space and Time".  This symposium was organized by Ara Apkarian, Eric Potma, and Venkat Bommisetty, all from the UC Irvine NSF-supported center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit.  During its span as a center, CaSTL has been at the forefront of technique development, including integrating ultrafast optics-based time-resolved measurements with the atomic-scale precision of scanning tunneling microscopy.  The center is sun-setting, and the symposium is a bit of a valedictory celebration.

The start of our semester made it necessary for me to return to Houston, but a couple of highlights from the first day:

  • Pri Narang spoke about her group's efforts to do serious combined quantum electrodynamics calculations and microscopic nanostructure modeling.  If one wants to try to understand strong coupling problems between matter and light in nanostructures nonperturbatively, this is the direction things need to go.  An example.
  • Erik Nibbering talked about ultrafast proton transport - something I'd never thought about that depends critically on the positioning and alignment, say, of water molecules, so that hydrogens can swap their oxygen bonding partners.  His group uses a combination of photoacids (for optical control over when protons are released) and time-resolved infrared spectroscopy to follow what's going on.
  • Ji-Xin Cheng showed some impressive results of applying plasmon-enhanced stimulated Raman spectroscopy, basically tagging living systems with plasmonically active nanoparticles and performing pump-probe stimulated Raman to follow biological processes in living tissue. Very impressive hyperspectral imaging.  
  • My colleague Stephan Link showed some nice, clean results (related to these) in understanding chirality effects (trochoidal dichroism) in scattering of light by curved nanostructures, where the longitudinal component of the electric field (only happens at surfaces) is critically important.
  • Frank Hegmann and Tyler Cocker spoke about various aspects of THz-based STM.  I can't really do this justice in a brief blurb, but check out this paper and this paper for a flavor.  Similarly, Dominik Peller spoke about this paper and this paper, and Hidemi Shigekawa showed what you can do when you can achieve phase control over the THz light pulse.  Combining STM with femtosecond time resolution lets you see some impressive things.
  • While not STM, but none-the-less very cool, Yichao Zhang showed movies from the Flannigan group taken by time-resolved transmission electron microscopy, so that you can actually see the propagation of sound waves.  
Wish I could've stayed to see more - I felt like I was learning a lot.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Pairs in the cuprates at higher energies than superconductivity

I've been asked by student readers over the years about how scientists come up with research ideas.  Sometimes you make an unanticipated observation or discovery, and that can launch a research direction that proves fruitful.  One example of that is the work our group has done on photothermoelectric effects in plasmonic nanostructures - we started trying to understand laser-induced heating in some of our plasmonic devices, found that the thermoelectric response of comparatively simple metal nanostructures was surprisingly complicated, and that's led to some surprising (to us) insights and multiple papers including a couple in preparation.

In contrast, sometimes you have a specific physics experiment in mind for a long time, aimed at a long-standing problem or question, and getting there takes a while.  That's the case with our recent publication in Nature.

I've written a bit about high temperature superconductivity over the years (here, here, here, here).  For non-experts, it's hard to convey the long historical arc of the problem of high temperature superconductivity in the copper oxides.

Superconductivity was first discovered in 1911 in elemental mercury, after the liquefaction of helium made it possible to reach very low temperatures.  Over the years, many more superconductors were discovered, metallic elements and compounds.  Superconductivity is a remarkable state of matter and it took decades of study and contributions by many brilliant people before Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer produced the BCS theory, which does a good job of explaining superconductivity in many systems.  Briefly and overly simplified, the idea is that the ordinary metallic state (a Fermi liquid) is often not stable.  In ordinary BCS, electrons interact with phonons, the quantized vibrations of the lattice - imagine an electron zipping along, and leaving behind in its wake a lattice vibration that creates a slight excess of positive ionic charge, so that a second electron feels some effective attraction to the first one.  Below some critical temperature \(T_{c}\), electrons of opposite spin and momenta pair up.   As they pair up, the paired electrons essentially condense into a single collective quantum state.  There is some energy gap \(\Delta\) and a phase angle \(\phi\) that together make up the "order parameter" that describes the superconducting state.  The gap is the energy cost to rip apart a pair; it's the existence of this gap, and the resulting suppression of scattering of individual carriers, that leads to zero electrical resistance.  The collective response of the condensed state leads to the expulsion of magnetic flux from the material (Meissner effect) and other remarkable properties of superconductors.  In a clean, homogeneous traditional superconductor, pairing of carriers and condensation into the superconducting state are basically coincident.

In 1986, Bednorz and Muller discovered a new family of materials, the copper oxide superconductors.  These materials are ceramics rather than traditional metals, and they show superconductivity often at much higher temperatures than what had been seen before.  The excitement of the discovery is hard to overstate, because it was a surprise and because the prospect of room temperature superconductivity loomed large.  Practically overnight, "high-Tc" became the hottest problem in condensed matter physics, with many competing teams jumping into action on the experimental side, and many theorists offering competing possible mechanisms.  Competition was fierce, and emotions ran high.  There are stories about authors deliberately mis-stating chemical formulas in submitted manuscripts and then correcting at the proof stage to avoid being scooped by referees.   The level of passion involved has been substantial.   Compared to the cozy, friendly confines of the ultralow temperature physics community of my grad days, the high Tc world did not have a reputation for being warm and inviting.

As I'd mentioned in the posts linked above, the cuprates are complicated.  They're based on chemically (by doping) adding charge to or removing charge from materials that are Mott insulators, in which electron-electron interactions are very important.  The cuprates have a very rich phase diagram with a lot going on as a function of temperature and doping.  Since the earliest days, one of the big mysteries in these materials is the pseudogap (and here), and also from the earliest days, it has been suggested (by people like Anderson) that there may be pairs of charge carriers even in the normal state - so-called "preformed pairs".  That is, perhaps pairing and global superconductivity have different associated energy and temperature scales, with pair-like correlations being more robust than the superconducting state.  An analogy:  Superconductivity requires partners to pair up and for the pairs to dance in synch with each other.  In conventional superconductors, the dancing starts as soon as the dancers pair up, while in the cuprates perhaps there are pairs, but they don't dance in synch.

Moreover, the normal state of the cuprates is the mysterious "strange metal".  Some argue that it's not even clear that there are well-defined quasiparticles in the strange metal - pushing the analogy too far, perhaps it doesn't make sense to even think about individual dancers at all, and instead the dance floor is more like a mosh pit, a strongly interacting blob.

I've been thinking for a long while about how one might test for this.  One natural approach is to look at shot noise (see here).  When charge comes in discrete amounts, this can lead to fluctuations in the current.  Imagine rain falling on your rooftop.  There is some average arrival rate of water, but the fluctuations about that average rate are larger if the rain comes down in big droplets than if the rain comes falls as a fine mist.  Mathematically, when charges of magnitude \(e\) arrive at some average rate via a Poisson process (the present charge doesn't know when the last one came or when the next one is coming, but there is just some average rate), the mean square current fluctuations per unit bandwidth are flat in frequency and are given by \(S_{I} = 2 e I\), where \(I\) is the average current.  For electrons tunneling from one metal to another, accounting for finite temperature, the expectation is \(S_{I} = 2 e I \coth (eV/(2 k_{\mathrm{B}}T) )\), which reduces to \(2 e I\) in the limit \(eV >> k_{\mathrm{B}}T\), and reduces (assuming an Ohmic system) to Johnson-Nyquist noise \(4 k_{\mathrm{B}}T/R\)  in the \(V \rightarrow 0\) limit, where \(R = V/I\).

TLDR:  Shot noise is a way to infer the magnitude of the effective charge of the carriers.

In our paper, we use tunnel junctions made from La2-xSrxCuO4 (LSCO), an archetypal cuprate superconductor (superconducting transition around 39 K for x near 0.15), with the tunneling barrier between the LSCO layers being 2 nm of the undoped, Mott-insulating parent compound, La2CuO4.   We could only do these measurements because of the fantastic material quality, the result of many years of effort by our collaborators.   We looked at shot noise in the tunneling from LSCO through LCO and into LSCO, over a broad temperature and voltage range.

The main result we found was that the noise in the tunneling current exceeded what you'd expect for just individual charges, both at temperatures well above the superconducting transition, and at bias voltages (energy scales) large compared to the superconducting gap energy scale.  This strongly suggests that some of the tunneling current involves the transport of two electrons at a time, rather than only individual charges.  (I'm trying to be very careful about wording this, because there are different processes whereby charges could move two at a time.)  While there have been experimental hints of pairing above Tc for a while, this result really seems to show that pairing happens at a higher energy scale than superconductivity.  Understanding how that relates to other observations people have made about the pseudogap and about other kinds of ordered states will be fun.   This work has been a great educational experience for me, and hopefully it opens the way to a lot of further progress, by us and others.

Friday, August 16, 2019

"Seeing" chemistry - another remarkable result

I have written before (here, here) about the IBM Zurich group that has used atomic force microscopy in ultrahigh vacuum to image molecules on surfaces with amazing resolution.  They've done it again.  Starting with an elaborate precursor molecule, the group has been able to use voltage pulses to strip off side groups, so that in the end they leave behind a ring of eighteen carbon atoms, each bound to its neighbor on either side.  The big question was, would it be better to think of this molecule as having double bonds between each carbon, or would it be energetically favorable to break that symmetry and have the bonds alternate between triple and single.  It turns out to be the latter, as the final image shows a nonagon with nine-fold rotational symmetry.  Here is a video where the scientists describe the work themselves (the video is non-embeddable for some reason).  Great stuff.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

APS Division of Condensed Matter Physics invited symposium nominations

While I've rotated out of my "member-at-large" spot on the APS DCMP executive committee, I still want to pass this on.  Having helped evaluate invited symposium proposals for the last three years, I can tell you that the March Meeting benefits greatly when there is a rich palette.


The DCMP invited speaker program at March Meeting 2020 is dependent on the invited sessions that are nominated by DCMP members. All invited speakers that we host must be nominated in advance by a DCMP member.

The deadline to submit a nomination is coming up soon: August 23, 2019.

Please take a moment to submit an invited session nomination.

Notes regarding nominations:
  • All nominations must be submitted through ScholarOne by August 23, 2019.
  • In ScholarOne, an invited session should be submitted as an "Invited Symposium Nomination".
  • An invited session consists of 5 speakers. You may include up to 2 alternate speakers in your nomination, in the event that one of the original 5 does not work out.
  • While no invited speakers will be guaranteed placement in the program until after all nominations have been reviewed, please get a tentative confirmation of interest from your nominated speakers. There will be a place in the nomination to indicate this.
  • A person cannot give technical invited talks in two consecutive years. A list of people that gave technical invited talks in 2019, and are therefore ineligible for 2020, can be found on this page.
  • Nominations of women, members of underrepresented minority groups, and scientists from outside the United States are especially encouraged. 
Be sure to select a DCMP Category in your nomination. DCMP categories are:

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Daniel Arovas, DCMP Chair, and Eva Andrei, DCMP Chair-Elect

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

More brief items

Writing writing writing.  In the meantime:

Monday, July 22, 2019

Ferromagnetic droplets

Ferromagnets are solids, in pretty nearly every instance I can recall (though I suppose it's not impossible to imagine an itinerant Stoner magnet that's a liquid below its Curie temperature, and here is one apparent example). There's a neat paper in Science this week, reporting liquid droplets that act like ferromagnets and can be reshaped. 

The physics at work here is actually a bit more interesting than just a single homogeneous material that happens to be liquid below its magnetic ordering temperature.  The liquid in this case is a suspension of magnetite nanoparticles.  Each nanoparticle is magnetic, as the microscopic ordering temperature for Fe3O4 is about 858 K.  However, the individual particles are so small (22 nm in diameter) that they are superparamagnetic at room temperature, meaning that thermal fluctuations are energetic enough to reorient how the little north/south poles of the single-domain particles are pointing.  Now, if the interface at the surface of the suspension droplet confines the nanoparticles sufficiently, they jam together with such small separations that their magnetic interactions are enough to lock their magnetizations, killing the superparamagnetism and leading to a bulk magnetic response from the aggregate.  Pretty cool!  (Extra-long-time readers of this blog will note that this hearkens waaaay back to this post.)

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Brief items

I just returned from some travel, and I have quite a bit of writing I need to do, but here are a few items of interest:

  • No matter how many times I see them (here I discussed a result from ten years ago), I'm still impressed by images taken of molecular orbitals, as in the work by IBM Zurich that has now appeared in Science.  Here is the relevant video.
  • Speaking of good videos, here is a talk by Tadashi Tokieda, presently at Stanford, titled "Science from a Sheet of Paper".  Really nicely done, and it shows a great example of how surprising general behavior can emerge from simple building blocks.
  • It's a couple of years old now, but this is a nice overview of the experimental state of the problem of high temperature superconductivity, particularly in the cuprates.
  • Along those lines, here is a really nice article from SciAm by Greg Boebinger about achieving the promise of those materials.  
  • Arguments back and forth continue about the metallization of hydrogen.
  • And Sean Carroll shows how remunerative it can be to be a science adviser for a Hollywood production.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Science and a nation of immigrants

It was very distressing to read this news article in Nature about the treatment of scientists of Chinese background (from the point of view of those at MIT).  Science is an international enterprise, and an enormous amount of the success that the US has had in science and technology is due to the contributions of immigrants and first-generation children of immigrants.  It would be wrong, tragic, and incredibly self-defeating to take on a posture that sends a message to the international community that they are not welcome to come to the US to study, or that tells immigrants in the US that they are suspect and not trusted. 

In any large population, there is always the occasional bad actor - the question is, how does a bureaucracy react to that?  One example:  Clearly some small percentage of medical researchers in the US have behaved unethically, taking money from medical and pharmaceutical companies in ways that set up conflicts of interest which they have hidden.  That's wrong, we should try to prevent it from happening, and those who misbehave should be punished.  The bureaucratic response to this has been that basically nearly every faculty member at a research university in the US now has to fill out annual disclosure and conflict of interest forms.   The number of people affected by the response dwarfs the number of miscreants by probably a factor of 1000, though in this case the response is only at the level of an inconvenience, so the consequences have not been dire.

Reacting to the bad behavior of a tiny number of people by taking wholesale measures that make an entire population feel threatened, unwelcome, and presumed guilty, is wrong and lazy.  The risk of long term negative impacts far beyond the scale of any original bad behavior is very real. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Magic hands, secret sauce, and tricks of the trade

One aspect of experimental physics that I've always found interesting is the funny, specialized expertise that can be very hard to transcribe into a "Methods" section of a paper - the weird little tricks or detailed ways of doing things that can make some processes work readily in one lab that are difficult to translate to others.   This can make some aspects of experimental work more like a craft or an art, and can lead to reputations for "magic hands", or the idea that a group has some "secret sauce". 

An innocuous, low-level example:  My postdoctoral boss had basically a recipe and routine for doing e-beam lithography on an old (twenty+ years), converted scanning electron microscope, plus thermal evaporation of aluminum, that could produce incredibly fine, interdigitated transducers for surface acoustic waves.  He just had it down cold, and others using the same kind of equipment would have had a very tough time doing this at that resolution and with that reliability, even with all the steps written down, because it really was a skill.

Another possible example:  I was talking today with an atomic physics colleague, and he mentioned that there is a particular isotope that only one or two AMO groups in the world have really been able to use successfully in their ultracold atom setups.  The question was, how were they able to get it to work, and work well, when clearly other groups had tried and decided that it was too difficult? 

Any favorite examples out there from readers? 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The physics subject GRE and grad school

As I've mentioned before, there is a lot of discussion lately about the physics subject GRE.  The exam is intended to cover a typical undergrad physics curriculum in terms of content, and is in the format of about 100 multiple-choice questions in about 170 minutes.  The test is put together with input from a committee of physics faculty, and there is presently a survey underway by ETS to look at undergrad curriculum content and subscores as a way to improve the test's utility in grad admission.  The issue out there is to what extent the test should be a component in admissions decisions for doctoral programs. 

The most common argument for requiring such a test is that it is a uniform, standardized approach that can be applied across all applicants.  Recommendation letters are subjective; undergraduate grades are likewise a challenge to normalize between different colleges and universities.  The subject exam is meant to allow comparisons that avoid such subjectivity.  ETS points to studies (e.g., this one) that argue meaningful correlations between subject test scores and first-year graduate GPA. 

At the same time, there has been a growing trend away from emphasizing the test.  The astronomy and astrophysics community has been moving that way for several years - see here.  There have been recent studies (e.g. this one, with statistics heavily criticized here and relevant discussion here) arguing that the test scores are not helpful in actually predicting success (degree completion, for example) in doctoral programs.  In our own graduate program, one of my colleagues did a careful analysis of 17 years worth of data, and also found (to the surprise of many) basically no clear correlation between the subject test score and success in the program.  (Sampling is tricky - after all, we can only look at those students that we did choose to admit.)  At the same time, the tests are a financial obligation, and as mentioned here scores tend to be systematically lower for women and underrepresented minorities due to educational background and access to opportunities. 

Our program at Rice has decided to drop the physics subject GRE.  This decision was a result of long consideration and discussion, and the data from our own program are hard to argue.  It all comes down to whether the benefits of the test outweigh the negatives.  There is no doubt that the test measures proficiency at rapidly answering those types of questions.  It seems, however, that this measurement is just not that useful to us, because many other factors come into play in making someone an effective doctoral student.   Similarly, when people decide to leave graduate school, it is rare that the driving issue is lack of proficiency in what the test measures. 

I'm on a mailing list of physics department chairs, and it's been very interesting to watch the discussion back and forth on this topic and how much it mirrored our own.  It takes years to see the long term effects of these decisions, but it will definitely be something to watch. 

Friday, June 07, 2019

Round-up of various links

I'll be writing more soon, but in the meantime, some items of interest:

  • A cute online drawing utility for making diagrams and flowcharts is available free at
  • There is more activity afoot regarding the report of possible Au/Ag superconductivity.  For example, Jeremy Levy has a youtube video about this topic, and I think it's very good - I agree strongly with the concerns about heterogeneity and percolation. The IIS group also has another preprint on the arxiv, this one looking at I-V curves and hysteresis in these Au/Ag nanoparticle films.  Based on my prior experience with various "resistive switching" systems and nanoparticle films, hysteretic current-voltage characteristics don't surprise me when biases on the scale of volts and currents on the scale of mA are applied to aggregated nanoparticles.  
  • Another group finds weird effects in sputtered Au/Ag films, and these have similar properties as those discussed by Prof. Levy.  
  • Another group finds apparent resistive superconducting transitions in Au films ion-implanted with Ag, with a transition temperature of around 2 K.  This data look clean and consistent - it would be interesting to see Meissner effect measurements here.  
  • For reference, it's worth noting that low temperature superconductivity in Au alloys is not particularly rare (pdf here from 1984, for example, or this more recent preprint).   
  • On a completely different note, I really thought this paper on the physics of suction cups was very cute.
  • Following up, Science had another article this week about graduate programs dropping the GRE requirement.
  • This is a very fun video using ball bearings to teach about crystals - just like with drought balls, we see that aspects of crystallinity like emergent broken symmetries and grain boundaries are very generic.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Brief items

A number of interesting items:

Thursday, May 23, 2019


I review quite a few papers - not Millie Dresselhaus level, but a good number.  Lately, some of the electronic review systems (e.g.,, which is a front end for "Scholar One", a product of Clarivate) have been asking me if I want to "receive publons" in exchange for my reviewing activity. 

What are publons?  Following the wikipedia link above is a bit informative, but doesn't agree much with my impressions (which, of course, might be wrong).   My sense is that the original idea here was to have some way of recording and quantifying how much effort scientists were putting into the peer review process.  Reviewing and editorial activity would give you credit in the form of publons, and that kind of information could be used when evaluating people for promotion or hiring.   (I'm picturing some situation where a certain number of publons entitles you to a set of steak knives (nsfw language warning).)

The original idea now seems to have been taken over by Clarivate, who are the people that run Web of Science (the modern version of the science citation index) and produce bibliographic software that continually wants to be upgraded.  Instead of just a way of doing accounting of reviewing activity, it looks like they're trying to turn publons into some sort of hybrid analytics/research social network platform, like researchgate.  It feels like Clarivate is trying to (big surprise here in the modern age of social media) have users allow a bunch of data collection, which Clarivate will then find a way to monetize.  They are also getting into the "unique researcher identifier" game, apparently in duplication of or competition with orcid.

Maybe it's a sign of my advancing years, but my cynicism about this is pretty high.  Anyone have further insights into this?

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Magnets and energy machines - everything old is new again.

(Very) long-time readers of this blog will remember waaaay back in 2006-2007, when an Irish company called Steorn claimed that they had invented a machine, based on rotation and various permanent magnets, that allegedly produced more energy than it consumed.  I wrote about this herehere (complete with comments from Steorn's founder), and here.  Long story short:  The laws of thermodynamics were apparently safe, and Steorn is long gone.

This past Friday, the Wall Street Journal published this article (sorry about the pay wall - I couldn't find a non-subscriber link that worked), describing how Dennis Danzik, science and technology officer for Inductance Energy Corp, claims to have built a gizmo called the Earth Engine.  This gadget is a big rotary machine that claims it spins two 900 kg flywheels at 125 rpm (for the slow version), and generates 240V at up to 100A, with no fuel, no emissions, and practically no noise.  They claim to have run one of these in January for 422 hours generating an average 4.4 kW.  If you want, you can watch a live-stream of a version made largely out of clear plastic, designed to show that there are no hidden tricks. 

To the credit of Dan Neil, the Pulitzer-winning WSJ writer, he does state, repeatedly, in the article that physicists think this can't be right.  He includes a great quote from Don Lincoln:  "Perpetual motion machines are bunk, and magnets are the refuge of charlatans." 

Not content with just violating the law of conservation of energy, the claimed explanation relies on a weird claim that seemingly would imply a non-zero divergence of \(\mathbf{B}]) and therefore magnetic monopoles:  "The magnets IEC uses are also highly one-sided, or 'anisotropic,' which means that their field is stronger on one face than the other - say 85% North and 15% South". 

I wouldn't rush out and invest in these folks just yet.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Light emission from metal nanostructures

There are many ways to generate light from an electrically driven metal nanostructure.  

The simplest situation is just what happens in an old-school incandescent light bulb, or the heating element in a toaster.  An applied voltage \(V\) drives a current \(I\) in a wire, and as we learn in freshman physics, power \(IV\) is dissipated in the metal - energy is transferred into the electrons (spreading them out up to higher energy levels within the metal than in the undriven situation, with energy transfer between the electrons due to electron-electron interactions) and the disorganized vibrational jiggling of the atoms (as the electrons also couple to lattice vibrations, the phonons).  The scattering electrons and jiggling ions emit light (even classically, that's what accelerating charges do).  If we look on time scales and distance scales long compared to the various e-e and e-lattice scattering processes, we can describe the vibrations and electron populations as having some local temperature.  Light is just electromagnetic waves.  Light in thermal equilibrium with a system (on average, no net energy transfer between the light and the system) is distributed in a particular way generically called a black body spectrum.  The short version:  current heat metal structures, and hot structures glow.  My own group found an example of this with very short platinum wires.  

In nanostructures, things can get more complicated.  Metal nanostructures can support collective electronic modes called plasmons.  Plasmons can "decay" in different ways, including emitting photons (just like an atom in an excited state can emit a photon and end up in the ground state, if appropriate rules are followed).  It was found more than 40 years ago that a metal/insulator/metal tunnel junction can emit light when driven electrically.  The idea is, a tunneling electron picks up energy \(eV\) when going from one side of the junction to the other.   Some fraction of tunneling electrons deposit that energy into plasmon modes, and some of those plasmon modes decay radiatively, spitting out light with energy \(\hbar \omega \le eV\).

This same thing can happen in scanning tunneling microscopy.  There is a "tip mode" plasmon where the STM tip is above the conducting sample, and this can be excited electrically.  That tip plasmon can decay optically and spit out photons, as discussed in some detail here back in 1990. 

The situation is tricky, though.  When it comes down to atomic-scale tunneling and all the details, there are deep connections between light emission and shot noise.  Light emission is often seen at energies larger than \(eV\), implying that there can be multi-electron processes at work.  In planar tunneling structures, light emission can happen at considerably higher energies, and it really looks there like there is radiation due to the nonequilibrium electronic distribution.  It's a fascinating area - lots of rich physics.


Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Updated: CM/nano primer - aggregated posts

Here is an updated and slightly reorganized (since 2017) listing of posts I've made over the years trying to explain some key concepts in condensed matter and nanoscale physics.  Please feel free to suggest topics that should be added. 

What is temperature?

What is chemical potential?
What is mass?
Fundamental units and condensed matter

What are quasiparticles?
What is effective mass?
What is a phonon?
What is a plasmon?
What are magnons?
What are skyrmions?
What are excitons?
What is quantum coherence?
What are universal conductance fluctuations?
What is a quantum point contact?  What is quantized conductance?
What is tunneling?

What are steric interactions?
(effectively) What is the normal force?
(effectively) What is jamming?
(effectively) What is capillary action?
What are liquid crystals?
What is a phase of matter?
About phase transitions....
(effectively) What is mean-field theory?

About reciprocal space....  About spatial periodicity.
What is band theory?
What is a "valley"? 
What is a metal?
What is a bad metal?  What is a strange metal?
What is a Tomonaga-Luttinger liquid?

What is a crystal?
What is a time crystal?
What is spin-orbit coupling?
What is Berry phase?
What is (dielectric) polarization?

About graphene, and more about graphene
Why twisting materials is interesting

About noise, part onepart two (thermal noise)part three (shot noise)part four (1/f noise)
What is inelastic electron tunneling spectroscopy?
What is demagnetization cooling?
About memristors....
What is thermoelectricity?
What are "hot" electrons?

What is a functional?  (see also this)
What is density functional theory?  Part 2  Part 3

What are the Kramers-Kronig relations?
What is a metamaterial?
What is a metasurface?
What is the Casimir effect?

About exponential decay laws
About hybridization
About Fermi's Golden Rule

Monday, April 29, 2019

The 1993 Stanford physics qual

Graduate programs in physics (and other science and engineering disciplines) often have some kind of exam that students have to take on the path to doctoral candidacy.  Every place is a bit different.  When I was an undergrad there, Princeton had a two-tiered exam system, with "prelims" largely on advanced undergrad level material and "generals" on grad-course-level content.  Rice has an oral candidacy exam with subfield-specific expectations laid out in our graduate handbook.  Stanford, when I went there in fall of 1993, had a written "qual", two days, six hours each day, ostensibly on advanced undergrad level material. 

There are a couple of main reasons for exams like this:  (1) Assessment, so that students learn the areas where they need to improve their depth of knowledge; (2) Synthesis -  there are very few times in your scientific career when you really have to sit down and look holistically at the discipline.  Students really do learn in preparing for such exams.

I've written about this particular exam experience here.  Thanks to an old friend whose handwriting decorates some of the pages, here (pdf) is a copy of that exam (without the solutions).   Wow.  Brings flashbacks. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Liquid droplets with facets

One essential concept in condensed matter physics is spontaneous symmetry breaking - the idea that the collective response of many components acting together results in a situation that has less symmetry than the underlying system.  Crystalline solids are a classic example.  The universe itself has (to high precision) "continuous translational symmetry" - the laws of physics governing some isolated system are the same as the laws of physics if you slide that system over a bit.  Space has continuous rotational symmetry - reorienting your isolated system doesn't change anything.  A collection of atoms, though, can assemble into a crystal, and the crystal structure itself has lower symmetry.  For, e.g., an electron within the crystal, there is now discrete translational symmetry, meaning that the electron's environment is the same if the crystal is shifted not by arbitrary amounts, but by precise multiples of the lattice spacing of the crystal.  Similarly, only specific discrete rotations of the lattice about particular axes leave the electron's environment unchanged.

We tend to think of liquids as not breaking continuous rotational or translational symmetry.  If you consider timescales long compared to the jostling motion of atoms or molecules in a liquid, all positions look about the same, as do all directions in space.  (It is possible to have intermediate situations, with liquids made from non-spherical molecules, and these can have directionality and local clustering.  Such liquid crystals are used in the display you're most likely using to read this.)  The lack of translational and rotational symmetry breaking in liquids is one reason that droplets (and bubbles) tend to be spherical.  If it is energetically expensive to have an interface between, say, oil in water, for a fixed volume of oil, then the lowest energy situation is to have a spherical oil droplet - that minimizes the surface area of interface.
Fig. 1 from Guttman et al., PNAS 113,  493-496 (2016).
Faceted oil droplets!

Yesterday I stumbled upon this paper, and that sent me down a literature rabbit-hole.   This Nature paper (archived version here) led me to this PNAS paper, where I grabbed Fig. 1 at right.  It turns out that it is possible to form faceted liquid droplets of certain oils (alkanes) in aqueous suspensions.  The outermost layer of the alkanes acts rather like a lipid membrane, and it is possible to sit at a temperature where that layer crystallizes (the molecules in it spontaneously break translational and rotational symmetry) while the bulk of the droplet remains a liquid.  What picks out the orientation of the resulting faceted shape?  Spontaneous symmetry breaking.  Tiny fluctuations or attributes of the local environment.  Wild!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Brief items, + "grant integrity"

As I have been short on time to do as much writing of my own as I would like, here are links to some good, fun articles:

  • Ryan Mandelbaum at Gizmodo has a very good, lengthy article about the quest for high temperature superconductivity in hydrogen-rich materials.
  • Natalie Wolchover at Quanta has a neat piece about the physics of synchronization
  • Adam Mann in Nat Geo has a brief piece pointing toward this PNAS paper arguing the existence of a really weird state of matter for potassium under certain conditions.  Basically the structure consists of a comparatively well-defined framework of potassium with 1D channels, and the channels are filled with (and leak in 3D) liquid-like mobile potassium atoms.  Weird.
Not fun:  US Senator Grassley is pushing for an "expanded grant integrity probe" of the National Science Foundation.   The stated issue is concern that somehow foreign powers may be able to steal the results of federally funded research.  Now, there are legitimate concerns about intellectual property theft, industrial espionage, and the confidentiality of the grant review process.  The disturbing bit is the rhetoric about foreign actors learning about research results, and the ambiguity about whether international students fall under that label in his or other eyes.  Vague wording like that also appeared in a DOE memo reported by Science earlier in the year.  International students and scholars are an enormous source of strength for the US, not a weakness or vulnerability.  Policy-makers need to be reminded of this, emphatically.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

This week in the arxiv

A fun paper jumped out at me from last night's batch of preprints on the condensed matter arxiv.

arXiv:1904.06409 - Ivashtenko et al., Origami launcher
A contest at the International Physics Tournament asked participants to compete to see who could launch a standard ping-pong ball the highest using a launcher made from a single A4 sheet of paper (with folds).  The authors do a fun physics analysis of candidate folded structures.  At first, they show that one can use idealized continuum elasticity to come up with a model that really does not work well at all, in large part because the act of creasing the paper (a layered fibrous composite) alters its mechanical properties quite a bit.  They then perform an analysis based on a dissipative mechanical model of a folded crease matched with experimental studies, and are able to do a much better job at predicting how a particular scheme performs in experiments.  Definitely fun.

There were other interesting papers this week as well, but I need to look more carefully at them.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Brief items

A few brief items as I get ready to write some more about several issues:

  • The NY Times posted this great video about using patterned hydrophobic/hydrophilic surfaces to get bouncing water droplets to spin.  Science has their own video, and the paper itself is here.  
  • Back in January Scientific American had this post regarding graduate student mental health.  This is a very serious, complex issue, thankfully receiving increased attention.
  • The new Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument has had "first light." 
  • Later this week the Event Horizon Telescope will be releasing its first images of the supermassive black hole at the galactic center.
  • SpaceX is getting ready to launch a Falcon Heavy carrying a big communications satellite.  The landing for these things is pretty science-fiction-like!

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The physics of vision

We had another great colloquium last week, this one by Stephanie Palmer of the University of Chicago.  One aspect of her research looks at the way visual information is processed.  In particular, not all of the visual information that hits your retina is actually passed along to your brain.  In that sense, your retina is doing a kind of image compression. 

Your retina and brain are actually anticipating, effectively extrapolating the predictable parts of motion.  This makes sense - it takes around 50 ms for the neurons in your retina to spike in response to a visual stimulus like a flash of light.  That kind of delay would make it nearly impossible to do things like catch a hard-thrown ball or return a tennis serve.  You are able to do these things because your brain is telling you ahead of time where some predictably moving object should be.  A great demonstration of this is here.  It looks like the flashing radial lines are lagging behind the rotating "second hand", but they're not.  Instead, your brain is telling you predictive information about where the second hand should be.

People are able to do instrumented measurements of retinal tissue, looking at the firing of individual neurons in response to computer-directed visual stimuli.  Your retina has evolved both to do the anticipation, and to do a very efficient job of passing along the predictable part of visualized motion while not bothering to pass along much noise that might be on top of this.  Here is a paper that talks about how one can demonstrate this quantitatively, and here (sorry - can't find a non-pay version) is an analysis about how optimized the compression is at tossing noise and keeping predictive power.  Very cool stuff.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The statistical mechanics of money

Slow posting recently because of many real-life things going on after the March Meeting.  We had a very engaging colloquium this week by Victor Yakovenko, a condensed matter theorist from the University of Maryland.   A number of years ago, he got into "econophysics", applying insights from physics to the economy.  A great review is here

A classic example is in his highly cited paper, with the same title as this post.  Make some simple assumptions:  Money is a conserved quantity, and the rates of transactions don't depend on the financial direction of the transactions.  Take those assumptions, start with everyone having the same amount of money, and allow randomized transactions between pairs of people.  The long-time result is an exponential (Boltzmann-like) distribution of wealth - the probability of having a certain amount of money \(m\) is proportional to \(\exp(-m/\langle m \rangle)\), where \(\langle m \rangle \) is the average wealth, a monetary "temperature".  The take-away:  complete equality is unstable just because of entropy, the number of possible transactions.

Apparently similar arguments can be applied to income, because it would appear that you can describe the distribution of incomes in many countries as an exponential distribution (more than 90% of the population).  Basically, for a big part of the population, it seems like income distribution is dominated by these transactional dynamics, while the income distribution for the top 3-ish% of the population follows a power-law distribution, likely because that income comes from returns on investments rather than wages.  The universality is quite striking, largely independent of governmental policies on managing the economy.

Yakovenko would be the first to say not to over-interpret these results, but the power of statistical arguments familiar from physics is impressive.  Now all we have to do is figure out the statistical mechanics of people....