A central goal in condensed matter and modern atomic physics is the exploration of quantum phases of matter—in particular, how the universal characteristics of zero-temperature quantum phase transitions differ from those established for thermal phase transitions at non-zero temperature. Compared to conventional condensed matter systems, atomic gases provide a unique opportunity to explore quantum dynamics far from equilibrium. For example, gaseous spinor Bose–Einstein condensates1,2,3 (whose atoms have non-zero internal angular momentum) are quantum fluids that simultaneously realize superfluidity and magnetism, both of which are associated with symmetry breaking. Here we explore spontaneous symmetry breaking in 87Rb spinor condensates, rapidly quenched across a quantum phase transition to a ferromagnetic state. We observe the formation of spin textures, ferromagnetic domains and domain walls, and demonstrate phase-sensitive in situ detection of spin vortices. The latter are topological defects resulting from the symmetry breaking, containing non-zero spin current but no net mass current4.
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We thank E. Mueller, J. Moore, and A. Vishwanath for comments, J. Guzman for experimental assistance, and the NSF and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for financial support. S.R.L. acknowledges support from the NSERC.
Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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