The beginning of the end of order: Experiments prove Mermin-Wagner fluctuations

March 30, 2017, University of Konstanz
Microscopic image of lattice vibrations in a two-dimensional crystal consisting of a monolayer of approx. 6,500 colloids. Deviations of particle positions from ideal lattice sites can be observed. If these deviations grow (logarithmically) with the system size beyond all limits, they are due to Mermin-Wagner fluctuations. In a three-dimensional crystal, particle distances are fixed and deviations are limited, irrespective of the size of the crystal. Credit: University of Konstanz

Classical physics states that a crystal consists of perfectly ordered particles from a continuous symmetrical atomic structure. The Mermin-Wagner theorem from 1966 broke with this view: it states that in one-dimensional and two-dimensional atomic structures (for example in an atomic chain or membrane) there cannot be perfect ordering of particles over long ranges.

Now, 50 years later, a group of physicists from Konstanz headed by Dr Peter Keim, were able to prove the Mermin-Wagner theorem by experiments and computer simulations - at the same time as two international working groups from Japan and the USA. The research results were published in the 21 February 2017 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) scientific journal.

Based on a model system of colloids, Peter Keim was able to prove that in low-dimensional systems slow but steadily growing fluctuations occur in the distance between : the positions deviate from perfect lattice sites, distances frequently increase or decrease. Crystal formation over long ranges is therefore not possible in low-dimensional materials.

"Often the Mermin-Wagner theorem has been interpreted to mean that no crystals at all exist in two-dimensional systems. This is wrong: in fact long-wave density fluctuations grow logarithmically in two-dimensional systems and only destroy the order over long ranges," explains Peter Keim. In small systems of only a few hundred particles, crystal formation can indeed occur. But the larger the systems, the more the irregularities in particle position grow, ultimately preventing crystal formation over long ranges. Peter Keim was also able to measure the growth rate of these fluctuations: he observed the predicted logarithmic growth, the slowest possible form of a monotonic increase. "However, the perturbation of the order not only has a structural impact, but also leaves traces in the dynamics of the particles," continues Keim.

The Mermin-Wagner theorem is one of the standard topics of interest in statistical physics and recently became a subject of discussion again in the context of the Nobel Prize for Physics: Michael Kosterlitz, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner published in a commentary how he and David Thouless got motivated to investigate so-called topological phase transitions in low-dimensional materials: it was the contradiction between the Mermin-Wagner theorem that prohibits the existence of perfect low-dimensional crystals, on the one hand and the first computer simulations that nevertheless indicated crystallization in two dimensions on the other hand. The proof from Peter Keim and his research team has now resolved this apparent contradiction: over short scales is indeed possible, but impossible over long ranges.

The Konstanz-based project analyses data from four generations of doctoral theses. The Mermin-Wagner fluctuations were successfully proven by investigating the dynamics in unordered, amorphous, that means glassy, two-dimensional solids - just as in the work from Japan and the USA which appeared almost at the same time - while the existence of Mermin-Wagner fluctuations in two-dimensional crystals still has not been proven directly. The Konstanz research was sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Young Scholar Fund of the University of Konstanz.

Explore further: Controlling the properties of matter in two-dimensional crystals

More information: Bernd Illing et al, Mermin–Wagner fluctuations in 2D amorphous solids, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1612964114

Related Stories

Artificial 2-D crystals modified at the touch of a button

September 30, 2016

Charged particles can form via self-organization processes an unexpectedly large range of crystal structures entirely by themselves. A research team with participants from TU Wien has demonstrated how easily the formation ...

Topological photonic crystal made of silicon

January 19, 2017

WPI-MANA researchers derive topological photonic states purely based on silicon, which can lead to the development of new functions and devices through integration with semiconductor electronics

Recommended for you

Muons spin tales of undiscovered particles

April 20, 2018

Scientists at U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories are collaborating to test a magnetic property of the muon. Their experiment could point to the existence of physics beyond our current understanding, including ...

Integrating optical components into existing chip designs

April 19, 2018

Two and a half years ago, a team of researchers led by groups at MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and Boston University announced a milestone: the fabrication of a working microprocessor, built using only existing ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 31, 2017
It is very difficult to construct a measurement of this type wherein the actions of atoms and molecules are observed at the atomic level due to external radiation of various wavelengths. The measurement itself can affect the atomic actions. Nothing new about this problem, but difficult to assess the affect. In the Planck electronic model of the atom, the Coulomb forces appear as complex dynamic springs that can produce oscillation of the electrons and protons. Oscillators of all types tend to lock together, but there is generally some variation. What is necessary is the construction of the electronic models in order to assess the dynamic interactions.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.