Tag Archives: W. Kohn

History and a Q&A Approach

I recently came upon the Review of Modern Physics series from the end of the 20th century where prominent figures wrote pieces about the history of subjects ranging from gravity and dark matter to biophysics and neural networks. I read Kohn’s article about the history of condensed matter physics (pdf!) from this series. Since the piece was written in 1999, it does not include a discussion of two dimensional materials, nor of topological insulators.

Nonetheless, I found the article to be quite illuminating because of the author’s historical question-and-answer perspective. Before embarking on the discussion of a topic, Kohn explained historically the importance of both the question and the answer. For example, an outstanding question at the start of the 1900s was: why do electrons in metals, which are assumed to be “free”, not contribute to the specific heat of solids at room temperature? Classically, each free electron should contribute \frac{3}{2}k_BT to the total energy by the equipartition theorem. The answer, of course, has to do with quantum statistics, which was only developed a decade later.

I have noticed that textbooks often don’t take this approach to presenting material and the important questions from a historical perspective are not explicitly stated. In my opinion, this omission leaves students often staring despairingly at the whiteboard wondering: what is the point of all of this again…? Most of us take a question-and-answer approach to our work on a day-to-day basis. It is therefore imperative that we not only relay basic material to undergraduate and graduate students, but also communicate the question-and-answer method we use to solve problems.

Can you imagine learning the photoelectric effect without understanding its  quantum mechanical consequences? Or Young’s two-slit experiment without knowing about the particle/wave debate concerning light?

Then we should not take such an approach in condensed matter physics either. For instance, Kittel’s textbook on solid state physics starts the chapter on the Debye T^3 relation with the following sentence: We discuss the heat capacity of a phonon gas and then the effects of anharmonic lattice interactions on the phonons and on the crystal. I think that this is an approach we should try to avoid. Now that I understand the historical context, I find this book to be quite valuable, but I remember struggling with it as an undergraduate.

In this sense, Kohn’s article is excellent in that it provides a historical context to some of the most important advances in condensed matter physics. It starts from classical physics, and goes through the Born-Oppenheimer theorem, the Sommerfeld model, the Bloch band paradigm, Landau Fermi liquid theory to Mott and Wigner insulators, among many other stops. I recommend it as some bedtime reading, which is exactly what it was for me.

Net Attraction à la Bardeen-Pines and Kohn-Luttinger

In the lead up to the full formulation of BCS theory, the derivation of Bardeen-Pines interaction played a prominent role. The Bardeen-Pines interaction demonstrated that a net attractive interaction between electrons in an electron gas/liquid can result in the presence of phonons.

The way that Bardeen and Pines derived this result can be understood by reading this paper. The result is actually quite simple to derive using a random-phase-like approximation or second-order perturbation theory. Regardless, the important result from this paper is that the effective interaction between two electrons is given by:

V_{eff}(\textbf{q},\omega) = \frac{e^2}{\epsilon_0}\frac{1}{q^2 + k_{TF}^2}(1 + \frac{\omega_{ph}^2}{\omega^2 - \omega_{ph}^2})

The crucial aspect of this equation is that for frequencies less than the phonon frequency (i.e. for \omega < \omega_{ph}), the effective interaction becomes negative (i.e. attractive).

It was also shown by Kohn and Luttinger in 1965 that, in principle, one could also obtain superconductivity in the absence of phonons. The attraction would occur using the phenomenon of Friedel oscillations whereby the effective potential can also become negative. This was quite a remarkable result: it showed that a purely electronic form of superconductivity was indeed theoretically possible.

What makes the effective interaction become attractive in these two models? In the Bardeen-Pines case, the phonons screen the electrons leading to a net attraction, while in the Kohn-Luttinger case, Fermi surface effects can again lead to a net attraction. It is important to note that in both papers, the pre-eminent quantity calculated was the dielectric function.

This is because the effective potential, V_{eff}(\textbf{q},\omega), is equal to the following:

V_{eff}(\textbf{q},\omega) = \frac{V(\textbf{q},\omega)}{\epsilon(\textbf{q},\omega)}

In the aforementioned cases, net attraction resulted when \epsilon(\textbf{q},\omega) < 0.

This raises an interesting question: is it possible to still form Cooper pairs even when \epsilon(\textbf{q},\omega) > 0? It is possible that this question has been asked and answered in the literature previously, unbeknownst to me. I do think it is an important point to try to address especially in the context of high temperature superconductivity.

I welcome comments regarding this question.

Update: In light of my previous post about spin fluctuations, it seems like \epsilon < 0 is not a necessary condition to form Cooper pairs. In the s-wave channel, it seems like, barring some pathology, that \epsilon would have to be less than 0, but in the d-wave case, this need not be so. I just hadn’t put two and two together when initially drafting this post.

Excitonic Insulator

The state of matter dubbed the excitonic insulator was first qualitatively discussed by Mott, Keldysh and Kopaev, and others and then expanded upon more systematically by Jerome, Rice and Kohn.

The excitonic insulating state can be considered from two normal states (pictured below). Either the system must be a small-gap semiconductor or a small indirect overlap semimetal. In fact, Mott had first considered the semimetallic limit, while Kohn and others had considered the semiconducting limit.


Intuitively, one can consider the following two heuristic arguments from the different limits, as presented in the article by Rossnagel, which was cited in the previous post:

  1. Semiconducting limit: If one can somehow reduce the band gap energy, E_G, then at some point, the binding energy to form an exciton, E_B, will exceed E_G, and the system will unstable to the spontaneous formation excitons.
  2. Semimetallic limit: In this case, one considers screening effects. If one decreases the band overlap, a characteristic energy, E_1, will be reached such that particle-hole pairs will be insufficiently screened, leading to a localization of the charge carriers.

Therefore, in the regime of E_1E_G <E_B, the excitonic insulator state is expected. Properties of the excitonic insulator state are presented pedagogically in a Les Houches lecture by Kohn in this book, which is very difficult to find!

In a solid state context, it has been difficult to establish whether the excitonic insulator state has been realized because a lattice distortion is expected to accompany the transition to the excitonic insulator ground state. Therefore, it is difficult to isolate the driving mechanism behind the transition (this difficulty will be familiar to those who study high T-c superconductivity!).

There are a few materials suspected to possess excitonic insulator ground states in a solid state setting: 1T-TiSe_2, Ta_2NiSe_5 and TmSe_{0.45}Te_{0.55}. In my personal opinion, the case for 1T-TiSe_2 is probably the strongest purely because there have been far more experiments on this material than the other candidate materials.

Though this state of matter was considered almost 50 years ago, it still remains relevant today. As Landau once said,

Unfortunately, everything that is new is not interesting, and everything which is interesting, is not new.

Kohn Anomalies and Fermi Surfaces

Kohn anomalies are dips in phonon dispersions that arise because of the presence of a Fermi surface. The presence of the Fermi surface renormalizes the bare phonon frequencies and causes an anomly in the phonon dispersion, as seen below for lead (taken from this paper):


Why this happens can be understood using a simplified physical picture. One can imagine that the ions form some sort of ionic plasma in the long-wavelength limit and we can use the classical harmonic oscillator equation of motion:

m\frac{d^2\textbf{x}}{dt^2} = \frac{-NZ^2e^2\textbf{x}}{\epsilon_0}

One can take into account the screening effect of the electrons by including an electronic dielectric function:

m\frac{d^2\textbf{x}}{dt^2} = \frac{-NZ^2e^2\textbf{x}}{\epsilon(\textbf{q},\omega)\epsilon_0}

The phonon frequencies will therefore be renormalized like so:

\omega^2 = \frac{\Omega_{bare}^2}{\epsilon(\textbf{q},\omega)}

and the derivative in the phonon frequency will have the form:

\frac{d\omega}{d\textbf{q}} \propto -\frac{d\epsilon(\textbf{q},\omega)}{d\textbf{q}}.

Therefore, any singularities that arise in the derivative of the dielectric function will also show up in the phonon spectra. It is known (using the Lindhard function) that there exists such a weak logarithmic singularity that shows up in 3D metals at \textbf{q} = 2k_F. This can be understood by noting that the ability of the electrons to screen the ions changes suddenly due to the change in the number of electron-hole pairs that can be generated below and above \textbf{q}=2k_F.

The dip in the phonon dispersion can be thought of as the phonon analogue of the “kinks” that are often seen in the electron dispersion relations using ARPES (e.g. see here). In the case here, the phonon dispersion is affected by the presence of the electrons, whereas in the “kink” case, the electronic dispersion is affected by the presence of the phonons (though kinks can arise for other reasons as well).

What is remarkable about all this is that before the advent of high-resolution ARPES, it was difficult to map out the Fermi surfaces of many metals (and still is for samples that don’t cleave well!). The usual method was to use quantum oscillations measurements. However, the group in this paper from the 60s actually tried to map out the Fermi surface of lead using just the Kohn anomalies! They also did it for aluminum. In both cases, they observed pretty good agreement with quantum oscillation measurements — quite a feat!