Strings attached to future high temperature superconductivity

The behaviour of strongly correlated electron systems, such as high temperature superconductors, defies explanation in the language of ordinary quantum theory. A seemingly unrelated area of physics, string theory, might give physicists a better understanding of the weird behaviour of this kind of collective electron system. A bird's eye view was recently published in Nature by five world experts in the field, among which Jan Zaanen from Leiden University/Delta Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Higher and higher

Up until the mid-1980s, it was commonly thought that superconductivity – the complete loss of electrical resistance in a material – only occurred at temperatures below 30 K. The discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in copper oxides (1986) ranks among the major scientific events of the 20th century. In less than a decade, temperatures went up to a mind-blowing 165 K, promising in a near future. But to reach that point, new theoretical descriptions are indispensable. That is the take-home message from an extensive review in this week's Nature by five leading experts in the field.

Electrons joining hands

Conventional superconductors can be described by an extremely successful theory, developed in the late 1950's by John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and John Schrieffer (Nobel Prize 1972). Their theory describes how, at low enough temperatures, single electrons in a metal join hands and form so-called Cooper pairs. According to ordinary , these paired electrons behave as one single particle with new properties. The most important: such a Cooper pair can travel freely, without any resistance at all, through the material.

Strange behaviour

That description fails completely in . For example, at temperatures well above the superconductivity threshold, the copper oxides behave very peculiarly. Above this threshold, the copper oxides were expected to behave like normal metals, with a certain amount of conductivity. Instead, the conductivity in modern superconducting materials is much, much smaller than in simple metals, hence their nickname 'strange – or bad – metals'.

In search of a new theory

With a bird's eye view, Jan Zaanen and his co-authors describe the recent developments in the field of and connect them to strongly correlated electron systems in general. Zaanen says: "These are all collective systems with huge numbers of electrons, and ordinary quantum theory just doesn't suffice to describe them. We are desperately in need of a new theory.' That theory, the authors elaborate, could very well be one that originates in a completely unrelated field of physics: string theory.

Holographic duality

In string theory, there exist many dualities: equivalent descriptions of a problem in two different ways. Depending on the problem, one description is usually easier than the other. The most famous duality was discovered by Juan Maldacena in 1997. This so-called AdS/CFT duality connects with a theory of gravity. It turns out that there is a holographic connection between the two, for which the field can be thought of as living on the boundary of an anti-deSitter space.

Mathematical toolbox

In 2007, theoretical physicists like Jan Zaanen started to use this holographic duality as a mathematical toolbox to play around with in the field of superconductors. To their surprise, it turned out that certain weird aspects, such as the behaviour of 'strange metals', can be described as the holographic dual of a black hole. That doesn't mean there are real black holes in superconductors, but the same mathematical tools can be used to describe both phenomena.

As a bonus, also benefits from this exchange of tools, especially in the field of quantum information. With hot topics such as large scale entanglement, there are many similarities with strongly correlated electron systems such as superconductors.

A revolution in physics?

The authors conclude their extensive review with the remark that 'The jury is still out on whether this is a coincidence or signals the onset of a revolution in physics.' But when asked, Jan Zaanen is more outspoken: "I think we are facing a revolution."

Explore further

Evidence mounts for quantum criticality theory

More information: "From quantum matter to high-temperature superconductivity in copper oxides," B.Keimer, S.A. Kivelson, M.R. Norman, S. Uchida & J. Zaanen, in: Nature 12 Feb 2015. DOI: 10.1038/nature14165
Journal information: Nature

Provided by Leiden University
Citation: Strings attached to future high temperature superconductivity (2015, February 12) retrieved 18 October 2019 from
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Feb 12, 2015
Yes: "These are all collective systems with huge numbers of electrons."

Yes: "We are desperately in need of a new theory."

Suggestion: study Art Winfree's law of coupled oscillators, which is well validated mathematically in describing the forms of collective behavior applicable to any systems of periodic oscillators. Applied successfully to biology.

Apply his law to physics, and particularly to systems of electrons. Electrons are periodic oscillators, which are generically the stuff to which Winfree's law applies. Electromagnetism itself clearly follows a basic Winfree form: electric periodic oscillation and magnetic periodic oscillation, in two exactly opposed planes and phases. Google an image.

I have many prior Physorg posts showing how Winfree's law can and should be applied to physics, including particularly "collective systems with huge numbers of electrons."

Feb 12, 2015
"The behaviour of strongly correlated electron systems, such as high temperature superconductors, defies explanation in the language of ordinary quantum theory."

This statement seems to imply that strongly correlated electron systems cannot be explained by ordinary quantum theory. This is an epochal discovery if it is true. People have been trying to establish limits to the validity of quantum theory for a long time without success. If a system of electrons and ions violate ordinary quantum theory -- we have truly learned something. More likely the writer of the press release missed some important qualifiers in the work.

Feb 12, 2015
The article does not say "violate." Nor do I.

The "Winfree law" that I mention above lies within quantum theory. Max Planck's quantum of energy is a periodic oscillation. Winfree's law says that any coherent system of oscillators will feature phase coordination. "Same phase at this point next cycle."

In a two oscillator system, the quantum phases must be either synchronous or exactly anti-synchronous in their relevant phases, relative to each other, each cycle. Cooper pairs follow this rule (anti synchronous pairing creates a boson from two coherent fermions). In a three oscillator system, possibilities include one-third out of phase with each other--balanced. Efimov states, recently demonstrated, follow this rule.

Consider the distinction between Fermi-Dirac statistics (half spin) and Bose-Einstein statistics (integer spins). Winfree's law requires such a dividing line, and different outcomes on either side of the line. Spin is a periodic oscillation

Feb 12, 2015
For a good illustration of my Winfree-Macksb theory, see a physorg article posted a few hours after this article. The title is Team Makes Stride in Explaining Thirty Year Old Hidden Order Mystery.

Feb 15, 2015
I am glad that finally there is some interest, marginal so far, in 50-year-old ideas that are truly revolutionary as far as potential application of room-temperature superconductors to high efficiency industrial energetic systems and energy storage technologies.

I would not be so optimistic as far as applicability of string theory or similar. Challenge is more fundamental, revising both classical and quantum theory of conductivity.

Feb 15, 2015
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