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In 1934, the physicist Eugene Wigner made a somewhat surprising prediction: Electrons should, in certain circumstances, form a crystal. Everyday crystal structures are based on atoms that line up in a lattice arrangement through a sort of mutual "convenience." Electrons, by contrast, are hard to pin down. These lightweight subatomic particles are generally in constant motion, and their negative electric charges mostly cause them to avoid their fellow electrons as much as possible while they zip around. Yet it was this very trait – repulsion – that Wigner surmised would drive the electrons into a crystal formation. If electrons experience strong mutual interactions, the repulsion could induce them to array themselves in a lattice. One can visualize this, in its simplest, one-dimensional form, as electrons sitting like beads on an imaginary string: Their natural instinct for avoidance would overcome their tendency to move, forcing them to occupy fixed positions along the string.
Dr. Shahal Ilani is the incumbent of the William Z. and Eda Bess Novick Career Development Chair.