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Quasiparticles help physicists make sense of the world

Tangible products—like a solar-powered hearing aid—may come from not-so-real particles

2:32pm, October 3, 2014
dropleton illustration

NOT-SO-REAL PARTICLES  Liquidlike particle clusters called dropletons, illustrated here, are a type of quasiparticle. 

Steven Cundiff wasn’t sure what would happen when he fired a laser at a target last year.

The condensed matter physicist wanted to see how the electrons inside a material used in solar panels and DVD players would behave when hit with an energy boost.

To deliver the energy, Cundiff and his team at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado Boulder, fired a quick pulse of red laser light at a strip of gallium arsenide, a material similar to silicon. Trillionths of a second later, they followed up with a weaker pulse. Once through the target, the second laser beam struck a detector, which helped the researchers determine what kinds of particles had absorbed the light from the first pulse.

The laser barrage seemed to cause strange clusters of electrons to form inside the strip. The electrons weren’t bunched rigidly as they would be in a

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