Physicists manage to break electrons into three quasiparticles

Electrons are generally known as "fundamental particles," meaning they're not made up of anything: you can't smash an electron to bits, because there are no bits to smash it into. Under the right circumstances, electrons can be broken up into quasiparticles, and the third one of these has just been identified: the orbiton.

A quasiparticle isn't really a particle, hence the "quasi." But, it acts like a particle enough that we can uniquely identify it as such, so we pretend that it is. It's not easy to get a fundamental particle like an electron to display quasiparticle characteristics, and in this particular case, researchers had to use a "quasi-one-dimensional Mott insulator." As far as I can tell (and I'm having some serious trouble telling, to be honest), this is a lattice of atoms in a strontium alloy that, as far as the electron is concerned, only has length and not width or depth.

Inside this lattice, electrons behave more like waves than like particles. By firing a beam of X-ray photons at a single electron in the lattice, the electron wave can be made to split up into different waves (or quasiparticles), each carrying a unique characteristic of the electron that they came from. In 1996, physicists got an electron to split into a charge wave (a "holonon") and a spin wave (a "spinon"), but a paper reported in Nature today describes the creation of the third and final wave/quasiparticle that contains the electron's orbital location: the "orbiton." So in some sense, every electron is comprised of three basic characteristics that describe it (charge, spin, and location), and in very specific conditions, it's possible to separate all of these characteristics out from each other.

Orbitons can only exist inside materials, but they may be able to explain some specific occurrences of high-temperature superconductitivy, and they may also be useful for building quantum computers. Whatever they end up being useful (or not useful) for, though, it's more than a little bit trippy that one of the fundamental pieces of the universe can sometimes be not quite so fundamental.

Abstract, via Nature

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