I’d like to explain a conjecture about Wigner crystals, which we came up with in a discussion on Google+. It’s a purely mathematical conjecture that’s pretty simple to state, motivated by the picture above. But let me start at the beginning.
Electrons repel each other, so they don’t usually form crystals. But if you trap a bunch of electrons in a small space, and cool them down a lot, they will try to get as far away from each other as possible—and they can do this by forming a crystal!
This is sometimes called an electron crystal. It’s also called a Wigner crystal, because the great physicist Eugene Wigner predicted in 1934 that this would happen.
Only since the late 1980s have we been able to make electron crystals in the lab. Such a crystal can only form if the electron density is low enough. The reasons is that even at absolute zero, a gas of electrons has kinetic energy. At absolute zero the gas will minimize its energy. But it can’t do this by having all the electrons in a state with zero momentum, since you can’t put two electrons in the same state, thanks to the Pauli exclusion principle. So, higher momentum states need to be occupied, and this means there’s kinetic energy. And it has more if its density is high: if there’s less room in position space, the electrons are forced to occupy more room in momentum space.
When the density is high, this prevents the formation of a crystal: instead, we have lots of electrons whose wavefunctions are ‘sitting almost on top of each other’ in position space, but with different momenta. They’ll have lots of kinetic energy, so minimizing kinetic energy becomes more important than minimizing potential energy.
When the density is low, this effect becomes unimportant, and the electrons mainly try to minimize potential energy. So, they form a crystal with each electron avoiding the rest. It turns out they form a body-centered cubic: a crystal lattice formed of cubes, with an extra electron in the middle of each cube.
To know whether a uniform electron gas at zero temperature forms a crystal or not, you need to work out its so-called Wigner-Seitz radius. This is the average inter-particle spacing measured in units of the Bohr radius. The Bohr radius is the unit of length you can cook up from the electron mass, the electron charge and Planck’s constant:
It’s mainly famous as the average distance between the electron and a proton in a hydrogen atom in its lowest energy state.
Simulations show that a 3-dimensional uniform electron gas crystallizes when the Wigner–Seitz radius is at least 106. The picture, however, shows an electron crystal in 2 dimensions, formed by electrons trapped on a thin film shaped like a disk. In 2 dimensions, Wigner crystals form when the Wigner–Seitz radius is at least 31. In the picture, the density is so low that we can visualize the electrons as points with well-defined positions.
So, the picture simply shows a bunch of points trying to minimize the potential energy, which is proportional to
The lines between the dots are just to help you see what’s going on. They’re showing the Delauney triangulation, where we draw a graph that divides the plane into regions closer to one electron than all the rest, and then take the dual of that graph.
Thanks to energy minimization, this triangulation wants to be a lattice of equilateral triangles. But since such a triangular lattice doesn’t fit neatly into a disk, we also see some ‘defects’:
Most electrons have 6 neighbors. But there are also some red defects, which are electrons with 5 neighbors, and blue defects, which are electrons with 7 neighbors.
Note that there are 6 clusters of defects. In each cluster there is one more red defect than blue defect. I think this is not a coincidence.
Conjecture. When we choose a sufficiently large number of points on a disk in such a way that
is minimized, and draw the Delauney triangulation, there will be 6 more vertices with 5 neighbors than vertices with 7 neighbors.
Here’s a bit of evidence for this, which is not at all conclusive. Take a sphere and triangulate it in such a way that each vertex has 5, 6 or 7 neighbors. Then here’s a cool fact: there must be 12 more vertices with 5 neighbors than vertices with 7 neighbors.
Puzzle. Prove this fact.
If we think of the picture above as the top half of a triangulated sphere, then each vertex in this triangulated sphere has 5, 6 or 7 neighbors. So, there must be 12 more vertices on the sphere with 5 neighbors than with 7 neighbors. So, it makes some sense that the top half of the sphere will contain 6 more vertices with 5 neighbors than with 7 neighbors. But this is not a proof.
I have a feeling this energy minimization problem has been studied with various numbers of points. So, there either be a lot of evidence for my conjecture, or some counterexamples that will force me to refine it. The picture shows what happens with 600 points on the disk. Maybe something dramatically different happens with 599! Maybe someone has even proved theorems about this. I just haven’t had time to look for such work.
The picture here was drawn by Arunas.rv and placed on Wikicommons on a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.