The penultimate interview in this Defining topology through interviews series is with Cécile Repellin, who is a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for the physics of complex systems, Dresden and works on condensed matter theory.
1. What do you say when trying to explain your work to non-mathematicians?
Since I’m not a mathematician myself, let’s rather pretend that I’m trying to explain my work to a non-physicist.
Understanding the different phases of matter is one of the most important goals of my field, condensed matter physics. Sometimes we can intuitively grasp the difference between various phases: you can think of water, which can appear in liquid form, but also as solid ice, or as steam, which is in gas form. Sometimes, it is more subtle, like the difference between a material that can carry an electrical current — a metal — and an insulator. Quantum mechanics leads to phases of matter even less intuitive than this, with electrical properties that are neither those of an electrical conductor like copper, nor those of a simple insulator, or even semiconductor like silicium. In these materials, everything happens as if the electrons carrying the electrical current were split into three or more parts. This phenomenon arises from the collective behavior and interactions (electric and magnetic) between the electrons.
My work consists in finding new phases of (quantum) matter, and more specifically new ways that electrons could split up. Among the many forces competing at the microscopic level, I try to figure out which ones are essential, to help predict in which materials these phases might appear.
2. What would your own personal description of “topology” be?
One often gives the example of a mug and a donut to explain the concept of topology. Imagine that you have a mug made of an extremely elastic material. By stretching it, you can transform your mug into an object with the shape of a donut. Had you started from a bun, it would have been necessary to pierce a hole to achieve the same result. The number of holes is a global property of an object, or topological invariant: if you stand too close, you can’t tell how many holes there are. You need to take a step back and look at the whole object. On the other hand, the details of the mug do not matter to determine the number of holes. In the context of physics, you would not be talking about the number of holes, but about something that you can measure in an experiment, like the conductivity or resistivity. In a quantum Hall experiment, a thin layer of semiconductor is sandwiched between two thicker layers, and subjected to a large magnetic field. If you apply a voltage on either side, you will observe the apparition of a voltage in the opposite direction. Another way of saying this is that the transverse resistance (or Hall resistance) is finite. If the temperature is low enough (around -273C), this resistance evolves step by step by forming plateaus as you tune the magnetic field. There is something very special about the value of the Hall resistance on the plateaus: it does not depend on the sample that you are looking at, nor does it depend on the material. It is in fact related by a simple proportionality rule to physical constants: the Planck constant h and the charge of the electron e, or rather the ratio e^2/h. This property is very unique and is so robust that it is used in metrology to define the ratio e^2/h. The robustness is a consequence of the Hall resistance being a topological invariant, much like the number of holes in an object.
3. How does your work relate, if at all, to the Nobel prize work?
A lot of my research relates to the work of David Thouless and Duncan Haldane, two of this year’s Nobel prize winners in physics. In 1988, Haldane proposed a lattice model where the quantum Hall effect could be realized in the absence of a magnetic field. The first projects I worked on as a PhD student consisted in understanding the physics of this model (and other similar ones) when the electrons hopping on the lattice strongly repel one another. One way or another, my research interests are in large part related to topology in condensed matter physics. I was attending a conference on topological phases of matter when I heard about the Nobel prize, and it was very nice to share this moment with colleagues and see the community react and celebrate the great news.