This represents the “excitation of a spin liquid on a honeycomb lattice with neutrons.” (Image: Genevieve Martin, Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

Forty years after the existence of “quantum spin liquid” was first theorized, scientists have seen this new state of matter for the first time, they report in Nature Materials. In this state, electrons, the building blocks of everything, get weird.

One very strange quality of quantum spin liquid is that electrons break apart. (Sort of. This is quantum physics, so this gets heady real fast.) In quantum spin liquid, electrons divide into “fractional particles,” called Majorana fermions, in a process called electron fractionalization. But Majorana fermions aren’t exactly smaller particles; as Science Alert explains, “these aren’t actually real particles but are concepts used by physicists to explain and calculate the strange behavior” of electrons. Another way to talk about them is “quasi-particles.”

When electrons are in this broken-down state, they behave differently—most notably, by getting all out of order. Normally, as temperatures drop, electrons get more organized, pointing their magnetic poles in the same direction. But in quantum spin liquid, they produce different, less clear patterns.

In their experiment, the scientists were able to observe some of these “remarkable properties,” and that’s a first step to actually make use of them. in theory, Majorana fermions could be a building block for much, much faster quantum computers, and now that scientists have seen this state of matter, they’re one step closer to bending them to human will.

Bonus finds: A gecko with an awesome, fat tail

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