Could the structure of space and time be sketched out inside a cousin of plain old pencil lead? The atomic grid of graphene may mimic a lattice underlying reality, two physicists have claimed, an idea that could explain the curious spin of the electron.
Graphene is an atom-thick layer of carbon in a hexagonal formation. Depending on its position in this grid, an electron can adopt either of two quantum states – a property called pseudospin which is mathematically akin to the intrinsic spin of an electron.
Most physicists do not think it is true spin, but Chris Regan at the University of California, Los Angeles, disagrees. He cites work with carbon nanotubes (rolled up sheets of graphene) in the late 1990s, in which electrons were found to be reluctant to bounce back off these obstacles.
Regan and his colleague Matthew Mecklenburg say this can be explained if a tricky change in spin is required to reverse direction.
Their quantum model of graphene backs that up. The spin arises from the way electrons hop between atoms in graphene’s lattice, says Regan.
So how about the electron’s intrinsic spin? It cannot be a rotation in the ordinary sense, as electrons are point particles with no radius and no innards. Instead, like pseudospin, it might come from a lattice pattern in space-time itself, says Regan. This echoes some attempts to unify quantum mechanics with gravity in which space-time is built out of tiny pieces or fundamental networks (Physical Review Letters, vol 106, p 116803).
Sergei Sharapov of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kiev says that the work provides an interesting angle on how electrons and other particles acquire spin, but he is doubtful how far the analogy can be pushed.
Regan admits that moving from the flatland world of graphene to higher-dimensional space is tricky. “It will be interesting to see if there are other lattices that give emergent spin,” he says.
Kate McAlpine, New Scientist