January 25, 2022
Often when physicists study phases of matter they examine how a solid slab of metal or a cloud of gas changes as it gets hotter or colder. Sometimes the changes are routine—we’ve all boiled water to cook pasta and frozen it to chill our drinks. Other times the transformations are astonishing, like when certain metals get cold enough to become superconductors or a gas heats up and breaks apart into a glowing plasma soup. However, changing the temperature is only one way to transmute matter into different phases. Scientists also blast samples with strong electric or magnetic fields or place them in special chambers and dial up the pressure. In these experiments, researchers are hunting for a stark transition in a material’s behavior or a change in the way its atoms are organized. In a new paper published recently in the journal Physical Review Letters, Barkeshli and two colleagues continued this tradition of exploring how materials respond to their environment. But instead of looking for changes in conductivity or molecular structure, they focused on changes in a uniquely quantum property: entanglement, or the degree to which quantum particles give up their individuality and become correlated with each other.