Measurements of the quantum Hall effect give a precise conductance in units of . Measurements of the frequency of the AC current in a Josephson junction give us a frequency of times the applied voltage. Hydrodynamic circulation in liquid 4He is quantized in units of . These measurements (and similar ones like flux quantization) are remarkable. They yield fundamental constants to a great degree of accuracy in a condensed matter setting– a setting which Murray Gell-Mann once referred to as “squalid state” systems. How is this possible?
At first sight, it is stunning that physics of the solid or liquid state could yield a measurement so precise. When we consider the defects, impurities, surfaces and other imperfections in a macroscopic system, these results become even more astounding.
So where does this precision come from? It turns out that in all cases, one is measuring a quantity that is dependent on the single-valued nature of the (appropriately defined) complex scalar wavefunction. The aforementioned quantities are measured in integer units, , usually referred to as the winding number. Because the winding number is a topological quantity, in the sense that it arises in a multiply-connected space, these measurements do not particularly care about the small differences that occur in its surroundings.
For instance, the leads used to measure the quantum Hall effect can be placed virtually anywhere on the sample, as long as the wires don’t cross each other. The samples can be any (two-dimensional) geometry, i.e. a square, a circle or some complicated corrugated object. In the Josephson case, the weak links can be constrictions, an insulating oxide layer, a metal, etc. Imprecision of experimental setup is not detrimental, as long as the experimental geometry remains the same.
Another ingredient that is required for this precision is a large number of particles. This can seem counter-intuitive, since one expects quantization on a microscopic rather than at a macroscopic level, but the large number of particles makes these effects possible. For instance, both the Josephson effect and the hydrodynamic circulation in 4He depend on the existence of a macroscopic complex scalar wavefunction or order parameter. In fact, if the superconductor becomes too small, effects like the Josephson effect, flux quantization and persistent currents all start to get washed out. There is a gigantic energy barrier preventing the decay from the current-carrying state to the current non-carrying state due to the large number of particles involved (i.e. the higher winding number state is meta-stable). As one decreases the number of particles, the energy barrier is lowered and the system can start to tunnel from the higher winding number state to the lower winding number state.
In the quantum Hall effect, the samples need to be macroscopically large to prevent the boundaries from interacting with each other. Once the states on the edges are able to do that, they may hybridize and the conductance quantization gets washed out. This has been visualized in the context of 3D topological insulators using angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy, in this well-known paper. Again, a large sample is needed to observe the effect.
It is interesting to think about where else such a robust quantization may arise in condensed matter physics. I suspect that there exist similar kinds of effects in different settings that have yet to be uncovered.
Aside: If you are skeptical about the multiply-connected nature of the quantum Hall effect, you can read about Laughlin’s gauge argument in his Nobel lecture here. His argument critically depends on a multiply-connected geometry.