Physicists show how lifeless particles can become 'life-like' by switching behaviors

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Nov. 9, 2017

Emory graduate student Guga Gogia slowly “salted” micron-sized particles into a vacuum chamber filled with plasma, creating a single layer of particles levitating above a charged electrode. He kept a low gas pressure, so the particles could move freely. “After a few minutes I could see with my naked eye that they were acting strangely," Gogia says.

Physicists at Emory University have shown how a system of lifeless particles can become “life-like” by collectively switching back and forth between crystalline and fluid states — even when the environment remains stable.

Physical Review Letters recently published the findings, the first experimental realization of such dynamics.

“We’ve discovered perhaps the simplest physical system that can consistently keep changing behavior over time in a fixed environment,” says Justin Burton, Emory assistant professor of physics. “In fact, the system is so simple we never expected to see such a complex property emerge from it.”

Many living systems — from fireflies to neurons — switch behaviors collectively, firing on and then shutting off. The current paper, however, involved a non-living system: Plastic particles, tiny as dust specks, that have no “on” or “off” switches.

“The individual particles cannot change between crystalline and fluid states,” Burton says. “The switching emerges when there are collections of these particles — in fact, as few as 40. Our findings suggest that the ability for a system to switch behaviors over any time scale is more universal than previously thought.”

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