Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


The Exception and its Rules


“Exceptional points” give rise to counter-intuitive physical effects. Researchers from TU Wien (Vienna) make use of these phenomena to create a novel kind of wave guide, which is now being presented in the journal “Nature”.

No matter whether it is acoustic waves, quantum matter waves or optical waves of a laser – all kinds of waves can be in different states of oscillation, corresponding to different frequencies. Calculating these frequencies is part of the tools of the trade in theoretical physics. Recently, however, a special class of systems has caught the attention of the scientific community, forcing physicists to abandon well-established rules.

Exceptional Points - solutions of equations in complex spaces

Copyright: Alex Mehler, / TU Wien

New frontiers in wave physics: waves with complex frequencies

Copyright: Alex Mehler, / TU Wien

When waves are able to absorb or release energy, so-called “exceptional points” occur, around which the waves show quite peculiar behaviour: lasers switch on, even though energy is taken away from them, light is being emitted only in one particular direction, and waves which are strongly jumbled emerge from the muddle in an orderly, well-defined state.

Rather than just approaching such an exceptional point, a team of researchers at TU Wien (Vienna, Austria) together with colleagues in Brazil, France, and Israel now managed to steer a system around this point, with remarkable results that have now been published in the journal “Nature”.

Waves with Complex Frequencies

“Usually, the characteristic frequencies of waves in a particular system depend on several different parameters”, says Professor Stefan Rotter (Institute for Theoretical Physics, TU Wien). The frequencies of microwaves in a metal container are determined by the size and by the shape of the container. These parameters can be changed, so that the frequencies of waves are changing as well.

“The situation becomes much more complicated, if the system can absorb or release energy”, says Rotter. “In this case, our equations yield complex frequencies, in much the same way as in mathematics, when complex values emerge from the square root of a negative number.” At first glance, this may look like a mere technicality, but in recent years new experimental findings have shown that these “complex frequencies” have indeed important physical applications.

Microwaves in a Metal Box

The strange characteristics of these complex frequencies become most apparent when the system approaches an “exceptional point”. “Exceptional points occur, when the shape and the absorption of a system can be tuned in such a way that two different waves can meet at one specific complex frequency”, Rotter explains. “At this exceptional point the waves not only share the same frequency and absorption rate, but also their spatial structure is the same. One may thus really interpret this as two wave states merging into a single one at the exceptional point.”

Whenever such exceptional points show up in a system, curious effects can be observed: “We send two different wave modes through a wave guide that is tailored not only to approach the exceptional point, but actually to steer the waves around it”, says Jörg Doppler, the first author of the study. No matter which one of the two possible modes is coupled into the system – at the output, always the same mode emerges. When waves are coupled into the waveguide from the opposite direction, the other mode is favoured. “It is like driving a car into an icy two-lane tunnel, in which one slides around wildly, but from which one always comes out on the correct side of the road”, says Doppler.

In order to test the theoretical models, Stefan Rotter and his group teamed up with researchers in France working on microwave structures, i.e., hollow metal boxes through which electromagnetic waves are sent to study their behaviour. To produce the strange wave behaviour near an exceptional point the waveguides need to follow very special design rules, which were devised at TU Wien with support from Alexei Mailybaev from IMPA (Brazil). The experiments were carried out in the group of Ulrich Kuhl at the University of Nice, where the predicted behaviour could now indeed be observed.

New Frontiers in Wave Physics

Systems with exceptional points open up an entirely new class of possibilities for controlling waves. “Just like complex numbers have brought us new possibilities in mathematics, complex exceptional points give us new ideas for the physics of waves”, says Rotter. Indeed, several research groups all over the world are currently working on exceptional points: in the same issue of Nature magazine, in which the above results are published, a team from Yale University (USA) also presents results on exceptional points in opto-mechanics. “I am sure that we will soon hear a lot more about exceptional points in many different areas of physics”, says Stefan Rotter.

Graphics download:

Jörg Doppler, Alexei A. Mailybaev, Julian Böhm, Ulrich Kuhl, Adrian Girschik, Florian Libisch, Thomas J. Milburn, Peter Rabl, Nimrod Moiseyev, Stefan Rotter (2016). "Dynamically encircling an exceptional point for asymmetric mode switching". Nature, doi:

Further information:
Prof. Stefan Rotter
Institute for Theoretical Physics
TU Wien (Vienna)
Wiedner Hauptstraße 8-10, 1040 Vienna
M: +43-680-3063161

Dr. Florian Aigner | Technische Universität Wien
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht From the cosmos to fusion plasmas, PPPL presents findings at global APS gathering
13.11.2018 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

nachricht A two-atom quantum duet
12.11.2018 | Institute for Basic Science

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A Chip with Blood Vessels

Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.

Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...

Im Focus: A Leap Into Quantum Technology

Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.

In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...

Im Focus: Research icebreaker Polarstern begins the Antarctic season

What does it look like below the ice shelf of the calved massive iceberg A68?

On Saturday, 10 November 2018, the research icebreaker Polarstern will leave its homeport of Bremerhaven, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.

Im Focus: Penn engineers develop ultrathin, ultralight 'nanocardboard'

When choosing materials to make something, trade-offs need to be made between a host of properties, such as thickness, stiffness and weight. Depending on the application in question, finding just the right balance is the difference between success and failure

Now, a team of Penn Engineers has demonstrated a new material they call "nanocardboard," an ultrathin equivalent of corrugated paper cardboard. A square...

Im Focus: Coping with errors in the quantum age

Physicists at ETH Zurich demonstrate how errors that occur during the manipulation of quantum system can be monitored and corrected on the fly

The field of quantum computation has seen tremendous progress in recent years. Bit by bit, quantum devices start to challenge conventional computers, at least...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

“3rd Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP 2018” Attracts International Experts and Users

09.11.2018 | Event News

On the brain’s ability to find the right direction

06.11.2018 | Event News

European Space Talks: Weltraumschrott – eine Gefahr für die Gesellschaft?

23.10.2018 | Event News

Latest News

The dawn of a new era for genebanks - molecular characterisation of an entire genebank collection

13.11.2018 | Life Sciences

Fish recognize their prey by electric colors

13.11.2018 | Life Sciences

Ultrasound Connects

13.11.2018 | Awards Funding

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>