From Simons Foundation: Women in STEM-Songtian Sonia Zhang”Think We Already Know Everything About Electrons? Think Again”

From Simons Foundation

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Songtian Sonia Zhang. Credit: Rick Soden, Princeton University
Physicist Songtian Sonia Zhang explores how electrons work within the tiniest objects and finds that they sometimes do unexpected things.

September 22, 2020
Marcus Banks

Songtian Sonia Zhang envisioned a life in finance, until she discovered that learning how electrons work is much more rewarding. A fundamental physicist with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and a doctorate from Princeton University, Zhang has already discovered unexpected behaviors among electrons found in quantum materials like superconductors or magnets. But many mysteries remain about the behavior of these tiny particles. Now beginning a postdoctoral appointment at Columbia University in the physics lab of Dmitri N. Basov, Zhang already has lots of ideas about what she wants to explore next. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

You began as a dual major in economics and physics at the University of Waterloo. What prompted the sharper focus on physics instead?

When I was an undergraduate at Waterloo, I planned to pursue a career in finance, perhaps even on Wall Street. I was interested in physics too, but I never imagined becoming a physicist. That all changed after I completed a physics research project in my third year of college, which happened to overlap with my first job at a financial services firm. This gave me the chance to directly compare finance to physics work — and physics won out handily.

When I was doing physics, I felt like I was helping to bring new understanding into the world. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. And it was far more rewarding to me than my work at the financial firm, where I essentially was moving money around. Don’t get me wrong, we need money! But I knew early that physics was for me.

That sounds clarifying! But the study of physics is broad. How did you narrow your interests?

During my last semester at Waterloo I researched a special kind of magnet known as ‘spin ice,’ in which the atoms are arranged in a complex lattice pattern. Most magnets have a north and south pole. And if you cut a magnet in two, each new magnet will then also have a north and south pole. But spin ice magnets have such a complex structure that we call them geometrically frustrated. Spin ice magnets can behave like monopoles — that is, a magnet with only one pole instead of the normal two. We still don’t know if monopoles even exist! But the spin ice magnet I studied sure seemed like a monopole, which was fascinating to me. When I first began to study physics, I assumed I would become an astrophysicist. Instead I decided to be more down-to-earth — literally. Today I study the physics of solids, not stars.

This sounds like quantum physics.

In many ways, yes. But quantum physics is an extremely broad term that can apply to many things, so in some ways it’s too general. The specific field I work in is condensed matter physics. I focus on how electrons behave within solids. I’m particularly interested in how groups of electrons behave, and especially how their collective behavior cannot be predicted by how each individual in the group acts.

You’re saying that groups of electrons collectively behave differently than we would expect from the way each individual electron acts on its own?

Exactly. We call this overall concept ‘emergent phenomena,’ in which groups of atoms or electrons act in unexpected ways. There are many examples of emergent phenomena in nature that go well beyond quantum physics. Think of individual birds migrating together as a cohesive flock, or a school of fish swimming upriver to spawn. Even though each individual bird or fish moves independently, they become entangled in the group and impossible to distinguish from one another.

Superconductivity is an example of an emergent phenomenon within physics. Regular electrical conductors carry a current known as electricity; this is how we light lightbulbs, for example, by connecting an electricity source to an object that emits light. These kinds of everyday conductors come with inherent inefficiencies — energy is always lost because the electricity faces resistance as it travels. This is why lightbulbs eventually burn out.

In contrast, a superconductor operating in extremely low temperatures (−450 F) can keep conducting electricity forever, because the electricity meets no resistance at all. Nobody could have predicted that superconductors could do this. It had to be discovered through observation, and it’s an example of how we are constantly learning about new types of emergent phenomena. Sometimes this is purely about developing knowledge for its own sake, but oftentimes this work has practical applications.

We’ll loop back to the practical applications in a moment. First, though, what was your most exciting discovery at Princeton?

At Princeton I studied kagome magnets. The atoms that comprise these magnets are arranged in a lattice which evokes the famous Japanese basket lattice pattern of the same name.

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Scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) image of magnetic adatoms deposited on topological superconductor candidate PbTaSe2. Inset: a 2D enlarged view. Each magnetic adatom can host a Majorana zero mode acting as a topological qubit which has the potential to be used for robust quantum computation. Credit: Songtian Zhang.

Like the spin ice magnets I previously mentioned, kagome magnets are geometrically frustrated. In our research, we did various things to these magnets, such as observing them within magnetic fields of various strengths or alternating their temperatures. This was all to see how the electrons behaved in different conditions. In high magnetic fields the kagome magnets started acting like negative magnets — meaning they exerted more energy when moving in the same direction as a magnetic field and not when going ‘against the wind,’ so to speak.

We published these unexpected results in Nature Physics last year.

The fact that we discovered something totally unexpected shows the importance of keeping an open mind, of not being locked into any one idea. Instead, we are always finding new questions to ask.

As you begin your postdoctoral work at Columbia, what do you plan to focus on, at least initially, until you discover new questions?

I’m interested in learning more about topological insulators: objects that, on the surface, conduct electricity but in their interior act as an insulator. When the material is cut, the new surface, which was previously the insulating bulk, becomes conductive and can now support surface currents. Besides topological insulators there are topological superconductors, which can superconduct currents of electricity. The physics community has made some headway in understanding these superconductors, but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.

And how do you hope this knowledge will inform our understanding of the natural and physical world?

Topological superconductors come from the math concept of topology. A good way to think about topology is the relationship between a doughnut, with a hole in the middle, and a ball, which has no holes. In this comparison, the doughnut and the ball are topologically distinct.

By comparison, the doughnut would be topologically identical to a ring, which also has a hole in the middle. In this example, the number of holes is a topological property that can’t be destroyed without changing the underlying nature of the object.

In physics, we’re interested in electronic behaviors that are similarly robust, such as in topological superconductors. There’s great potential for topological superconductors to be used for powerful, reliable and robust quantum computation, which will be a giant leap past the computers we use today. I can’t say exactly how my work will contribute to this, but I do know I’m excited to be on the journey. And I know I will enjoy it more than working on Wall Street.

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