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Nat Commun. 2013;4:2291. doi: 10.1038/ncomms3291.

Topological defect formation and spontaneous symmetry breaking in ion Coulomb crystals.

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Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, Bundesallee 100, 38116 Braunschweig, Germany.


Symmetry breaking phase transitions play an important role in nature. When a system traverses such a transition at a finite rate, its causally disconnected regions choose the new broken symmetry state independently. Where such local choices are incompatible, topological defects can form. The Kibble-Zurek mechanism predicts the defect densities to follow a power law that scales with the rate of the transition. Owing to its ubiquitous nature, this theory finds application in a wide field of systems ranging from cosmology to condensed matter. Here we present the successful creation of defects in ion Coulomb crystals by a controlled quench of the confining potential, and observe an enhanced power law scaling in accordance with numerical simulations and recent predictions. This simple system with well-defined critical exponents opens up ways to investigate the physics of non-equilibrium dynamics from the classical to the quantum regime.


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