Meissner effect as amplified atomic diamagnetism

As you can probably tell from my previous post, I have found the recent activism inspiring and genuinely hopeful of it translating into some form of justice and meaningful action. At the end of this post I share a few videos that I found particularly poignant.

It’s hard to imagine the history of condensed matter physics without both the discovery and theory of superconductivity. Superconductivity has played and continues to play an outsized role in our field, and it is quite easy to understand why this is the case. All one has to do is to imagine what our world would look like with room temperature superconductivity. Besides the potential technological implications, it has also garnered attention because of the wealth of stunning effects associated with it. A few examples include the Josephson effect, flux quantization, persistent superconducting currents, vortex lattices and the Meissner effect.

Now, these effects occur for various reasons, but there are a couple of them that can be viewed to some extent as a microscopic effect on a macroscopic scale. To show what I mean by that, I am going to focus on the Meissner effect and talk about how we can view it as an amplification of atomic diamagnetism. One could also extend the this microscopic to macroscopic amplification picture to the relationship between a Josephson junction in a superconducting ring and the Aharonov-Bohm effect, but I’ll leave that discussion to another day.

To understand what I mean by amplification, let’s first look at atomic diamagnetism. Here we can use a similar logic that led to the Bohr model of the atom. Two conditions are important here — (i) the de Broglie relation \lambda = h/p and (ii) the Bohr quantization condition n\lambda = 2\pi r which states that only integer wavelengths are allowed in a closed loop (such as an atomic orbit). See the image below for a simple picture (click the image for the source).

We can use the classical relation for the momentum p=mv in addition to equations (i) and (ii) above to get mvr = n\hbar, which is what Bohr got in his atomic model. It’s worth noting here that when the atom is in its ground state (i.e. n=0), there is no “atomic current”, meaning that j = ev = 0. Without this current, however, it is not possible to have a diamagnetic response.

So how do we understand atomic diamagnetism? To do so, we need to incorporate the applied field into the deBroglie relation by using the canonical momentum. By making the “Peierls substitution”, we can write that p = mv+eA. Using the same logic as above, our quantization condition is now mvr = n\hbar - eAr. Now, however, something has changed; we do get a non-zero current in the ground state (i.e. j = ev = -e^2A/m for n=0). Qualitatively, this current circulates to screen out the field that is trying to “mess up” the integer-number-of-wavelengths-around-the-loop condition. Note also that we have a response that is strictly quantum mechanical in nature; the current is responding to the vector potential. (I realize that the relation is not strictly gauge invariant, but it makes sense in the “Coulomb gauge”, i.e. when \nabla\cdot A=0 or when the vector potential is strictly transverse). In some sense, we already knew that our answer must look obviously quantum mechanical because of the Bohr-van Leeuwen theorem.

If we examine the equation for the electromagnetic response to a superconductor, i.e. the London equation, we obtain a similar equation j = n_sev = -n_se^2A/m, where n_s is the superfluid density. The resemblance between the two equations is far from superficial. It is this London equation which allows us to understand the origin of the Meissner effect and the associated spectacular diamagnetism. Roughly speaking then, we can understand the Meissner effect as an amplification of an atomic effect that results in a non-zero ground state “screening” current.

I would also like to add that the Meissner effect is also visible in a multiply connected geometry (see below). This time, the magnetic field (for sufficiently small magnetic fields) is forbidden from going through the center of the ring.

What is particularly illuminating about this ring geometry is that you don’t have to have a magnetic field like in the image above. In fact, it is totally possible to have a superconducting ring under so-called Aharonov-Bohm conditions, where a solenoid passes through the center but the ring never sees the magnetic field. Instead, the superconducting ring “feels the vector potential”. In some sense, this latter experiment emphasizes the equation above where the current really responds (in a gauge-invariant way) to a vector potential and not just the magnetic field.

Understanding the Meissner effect in this way helps us divorce the Meissner effect from the at-first-sight similar effect of persistent currents in a superconducting ring. In the Meissner effect, as soon as the magnetic field is turned off, the current dies and goes back to zero. This is because through this entire process, the superconductor remains in its ground state. Only when the superconductor is excited to higher states (i.e. n=1,2,3…) does the current persist in a metastable fashion for a quasi-infinitely long time.

To me, understanding the Meissner effect in this way, which exposes the connection of the microscopic to the macroscopic, harks back to an old post I made about Frank Wilczek’s concept of upward inheritence. The Meissner effect somehow seems clearer through his lens.

Now as promised, here are the couple videos (if the videos don’t play, click on the panel to take you to the twitter website because these videos are worth watching!):

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