Why Was BCS So Important?

BCS theory, which provides a microscopic framework to understand superconductivity, made us realize that a phenomenon similar to Bose-Einstein condensation was possible for fermions. This is far from a trivial statement, though we sometimes think of it as so in present times.

A cartoon-y scheme to understand it is in the following way. We know that if you put a few fermions together, you can get a boson, such as 4-helium. It was also known well before BCS theory, that one gets a phenomenon reminiscent of Bose-Einstein condensation, known as superfluidity, in 4-helium below 2.17K. The view of 4-helium as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) was advocated strongly by Fritz London, who was perhaps the first to think of it in such a way.

Now let us think of another type of boson, a diatomic molecule, as seen in gas form below:diatomic_gas

Even if the individual atoms were fermions, one would then predict that if this bosonic diatomic gas molecule could remain in the gas phase all the way down to low temperature, that at some point, this diatomic gas would condense into a BEC. This idea is correct and this is indeed what is observed.

However, the idea of a BEC becomes a little more cloudy when one considers a less dilute diatomic gas where the atoms are not so strongly bound together. In that case, the cartoon starts to look something like this:
diatomic_gas_overlappingHere the “diatomic molecules” are overlapping, and it is not easy to see which atoms are paired together to form the diatomic molecule, if one can even ascribe this trait to them. In this case, it is no longer simple to see whether or not BEC will occur and indeed if there is a limit in distance between the molecules that will necessarily give rise to BEC.

This is the question that BCS theory so profoundly addresses. It says that the “diatomic molecules” or Cooper pairs can span a great distance. In superconducting aluminum, this distance is ~16,000 Angstroms, which means the Cooper pairs are wildly overlapping. In fact, in this limit, the Cooper pair is no longer strictly even a boson, in the sense that Cooper pair creation and annihilation operators do not obey Bose-Einstein commutation relations.

However, the Cooper pair can still qualitatively thought of as a pseudo-boson that undergoes pseud0-BEC, and this picture is indeed  very useful. It enabled the prediction of pseud0-BEC in neutron stars, liquid 3-helium and ultra-cold fermionic gases — predictions which now have firm experimental backing.

An interesting note is that one can study this BCS-to-BEC crossover in ultracold Fermi gases and go from the overlapping to non-overlapping limit by tuning the interaction between atoms and I’ll try to write a post about this in the near future.

So while BCS theory has many attributes that make it important, to my mind, the most profound thing is that it presents a mechanism by which weakly interacting fermionic pairs can condense into a pseudo-BEC. This is not at all obvious, but indeed what happens in nature.

Update: In light of the description above, it seems surprising that the temperature at which Cooper pairs form is the same temperature at which they seem to condense into a pseudo-BEC. Why this is the case is not obvious and I think is an open question, especially with regards to the cuprates and in particular the pseudogap.

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One response to “Why Was BCS So Important?

  1. Pingback: Landau Theory and the Ginzburg Criterion | This Condensed Life

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