In a scrambled Rubiks cube, colorful squares clash without order. As pieces click into place in the hands of a skilled puzzle solver, the individual characters of squares dissolve as solid faces of uniform color emerge.
In the same way, barium copper silicate-also known as Han Purple, a vivid pigment used in ancient China-transforms from a nonmagnetic, disordered insulator into a magnetic, ordered condensate under conditions of extreme cold and high magnetic field. The components that click into place to form an entirely new phase are the electron orientations of atoms, or spins, described by their quantum state as up or down.
Now, scientists at Stanford, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Institute for Solid State Physics (University of Tokyo) have discovered that at the abrupt lowest temperature transition at which the silicate enters a new state-called the quantum critical point-the three-dimensional material loses a dimension to form a Flatland, of sorts. Just as in the 1884 novella Flatland that posited a planar world, the spins strongly interact only in two dimensions. Effects from the third dimension are negligible. Their work appears in the June 1 issue of Nature.
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