UMD CMNS Physics S1 Color

Nature doesn’t have the best memory. If you fill a box with air and divide it in half with a barrier, it’s easy to tell molecules on the left from molecules on the right. But after removing the barrier and waiting a short while, the molecules get mixed together, and it becomes impossible to tell where a given molecule started. The air-in-a-box system loses any memory of its initial conditions.

The universe has been forgetting its own initial state since the Big Bang, a fact linked to the unrelenting forward march of time. Systems that forget where they started are said to have thermalized, since it is often—but not always—an exchange of heat and energy with some other system that causes the memory loss. For example, a melting ice cube forgets its orderly arrangement of water molecules when heat from its surroundings splits the cube’s crystal bonds. In some sense, the initial information about the ice cube—the structure of the crystal, the distance between molecules, etc.—leaks away.

The opposite case is localization, where information about the initial arrangement sticks around. Such a situation is rare, like an ice cube that never melts, but one example is Anderson localization, in which particles or waves in a crystal are trapped near impurities. They tend to bounce off defects in the crystal and scatter in random directions, yielding no net movement. If there are enough impurities in a region, the particles or waves never escape.

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