Condensed matter physics has, in the past ten years or so, made a left turn towards studying topological properties of materials. Following the discovery of the Quantum Hall Effect (QHE) in 1980, it took about 25 years to experimentally discover that similar phenomenology could occur in bulk samples in the absence of a magnetic field in topological insulators. In the current issue of Nature Physics, there are three papers demonstrating the existence of a Weyl semimetal in TaAs and NbAs. These states of matter bear a striking similarity to quantum mechanical effects such as the Aharonov-Bohm effect and the Dirac monopole problem.
So what do all of these things have in common? Well, I vaguely addressed this issue in a previous post concerning Berry phases, but I want to elaborate a little more here. First it should be understood that all of these problems take place on some sort of manifold. For instance, the Aharonov-Bohm effect takes place in a plane, the Dirac monopole problem on a 3D sphere and the problems in solid-state physics largely on a torus due to periodic boundary conditions.
Now, what makes all of these problems exhibit a robust topological quantization of some sort is that the Berry connection in these problems cannot adequately be described by a single function over the entire manifold. If one were to attempt to write down a function for the Berry connection, there would necessarily exist a singularity somewhere on the manifold. But because the Berry connection is not an observable, one can just write down two (or more) different functions on different parts (or “neighborhoods”) of the manifold. The price one has to pay is that one has to “patch” the functions together at the boundary of the neighborhoods. Therefore, the existence of the topological quantization in most of the problems described above arise because of a singularity in the Berry connection somewhere on the manifold that cannot be gotten rid of with a gauge transformation.
For instance, for the Aharonov-Bohm effect, the outside of the solenoid and the inside of the solenoid must be described by different functions, or else the “outside function” would be singular at the center of the solenoid. Qualitatively, one can think of the manifold as a plane with a hole punched in the middle of it. In the case of the Dirac monopole, the magnetic monopole itself is the position of the singularity and there is a hole punched in 3-dimensional space.
There is an excellent discussion on both these problems in Sakurai’s quantum mechanics textbook. I particularly like the approach he takes to the Dirac monopole problem, which he adapted from Wu and Yang’s elegant solution. The explanation of the QHE using similar ideas was developed in this great (but unfortunately quite mathematical) paper by Kohmoto (pdf!). I realize that this post only sketches the main point (with perhaps too much haste), but I hope that it will be illuminating to some.
Update: I have written a guest post for Brian Skinner’s blog Gravity and Levity where I discuss the topics here in a little more detail. You can read the post here if you’re interested.