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.
The current paper involved a non-living system: Plastic particles, tiny as dust specks, that have no “On” or “Off” switches.
“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.”
The Burton lab studies the tiny, plastic particles as a model for more complex systems.
By altering the gas pressure inside the chamber, the lab members can study how the particles behave as they move between an excited, free-flowing state into a jammed, stable position.
The current discovery occurred after Emory graduate student Guram “Guga” Gogia tapped a shaker and slowly “Salted” the particles into the vacuum chamber filled with the plasma, creating a single layer of particles levitating above a charged electrode.
From anywhere between tens of seconds to minutes, the particles would switch from moving in lockstep, or a rigid structure, to being in a melted gas-like state.