Things I don’t understand
What are the different possible phases of matter?
One of the big advances of twentieth century physics was the development of a very general set of ideas – the renormalization group – that let you analyse and understand the properties of different phases of matter, and the phase transitions between them. This development was done by a whole bunch of people, including Landau, Ginzburg, Kadanoff, Michael Fisher, Wilson, and others.
In a recent issue of Science there’s an article by Senthil, Balents, Sachdev, Vishwanath and Matthew Fisher claiming to have found a significant class of phase transitions that can’t be understood within this framework. (Here’s the long (and possibly more comprehensible) version of the paper at a publicly accessible site.)
This would seem to be extremely significant if true, which is why I’m reading the paper. I’m reminded, as I read, however, of the many basic items of background material I don’t understand all that well.
One thing that always bugs me when I read about phase transitions is the question “What is an order parameter?” Landau introduced this concept as the unifying idea behind his theory of phase transitions. Examples include the magnetisation of a ferromagnet, and the phase in a superconductor.
So far as I can tell, the order parameter is usually divined, as opposed to defined. How are we supposed to deduce the order parameter? Is there a freedom in our choice of order parameter? What makes one choice of order parameter a good one? I’d love to fully understand the answers to any of these questions.