PerspectivePhysics

Electrons go with the flow in exotic material systems

Science  04 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6277, pp. 1026-1027
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2487

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Summary

Turn a switch and the light goes on. The layman's perception is that this is like opening a tap so that the water starts running. But this analogy is misleading. The flow of water is governed by the theory of hydrodynamics, whereby the behavior of the fluid does not require knowledge of the motions of individual molecules. Electrical currents in solids, however, are formed from electrons. In metals, these do not collide with each other, but they do scatter from lattice imperfections. The resulting “Knudsen flow” of electrons is reminiscent of the avalanche of balls cascading through a dense forest of pins, as in a Pachinko machine. On pages 1058, 1055, and 1061 of this issue, evidence is presented that electrons can actually yield to the laws of hydrodynamics (13). What is additionally surprising is that these observations are in agreement with mathematical techniques borrowed from string theory (4). These techniques have been applied to describe strongly interacting forms of quantum matter, predicting that they should exhibit hydrodynamic flows (5).