What’s the Matter?

Herbertsmithite - A new form of matter?If you answered “a string-net liquid” you might just be right. (And you are a much bigger geek than me! ;-))

New Scientist is reporting that researchers may have discovered a new form of matter. They call it a “string-net liquid” and even have speculated that the vacuum of the whole universe may be made from it.

Herbertsmithite (pictured) was found by geologists in the mountains of Chile in 1972.

It is unusual because its electrons are arranged in a triangular lattice. Electrons normally line up so that their spins are in the opposite direction to that of their immediate neighbors, which is impossible in a triangular configuration. The scientists’ new model shows that such a system would be a string-net liquid, so-called because the electrons in this material appear random like in a liquid, but they also move in well-defined (“entangled”) steps.

They were able to create and test a pure version of the herbertsmithite (originally named after a famed geologist) in the lab. Simulations of this new state of matter produced consistent predictions for the behavior of elementary particles like electrons, quarks, gluons, and the W and Z bosons. The scientists also found something even more surprising. As the net of strings vibrated, it produced a wave that behaved according to a very familiar set of laws – Maxwell’s equations, which describe the behavior of light. This has lead the researchers to speculate that the universe might be modeled in a similar way as the string-net liquid, where these “elementary” particles are a result of the deeper structure of the non-empty vacuum of space-time.

Are we getting close to the mythical Theory of Everything? Probably not, but it’s an interesting topic to consider late at night under a starry sky.

Of course, it probably still won’t answer the question of what happens when you are driving in a car at the speed of light and you turn your headlights on. :-O

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