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Dissipative self-organization in optical space


The complex behaviours of schools of fish1 and swarms of bacteria2,3 can be emulated in soft-matter systems that assemble into flocks4,5 and active nematics6, respectively. These artificial structures emerge far from thermodynamic equilibrium through the process of dissipative self-organization, in which many-body interactions coordinate energy dissipation. The development of such active matter has deepened our understanding of living systems. Yet, the application of dissipative self-organization has been restricted to soft-matter systems, whose elements organize through their respective motions. Here, we demonstrate dissipative self-organization in solid-state photonics. Our structure consists of a random array of Fabry–Pérot resonators that are externally driven and interact coherently through thermo-optical feedback. At sufficient optical driving power, the system undergoes a phase transition into a robustly organized non-equilibrium state that actively partitions energy dissipation, while displaying resiliency to perturbations and collective memory7,8. Self-organizing photonics opens possibilities for developing scalable architectures and life-like networks for brain-inspired computation9,10.

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Fig. 1: Self-organization of optical phase.
Fig. 2: Phase transition to the organized steady state.
Fig. 3: Resilience to thermal perturbation.
Fig. 4: Collective memory effects and hidden states.

Data availability

The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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This work was supported by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program (Non-Equilibrium Metamaterials,18-174) of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory under US Department of Energy contract no. DE-AC02-05CH11231 for theory and optical design and measurement. Sample fabrication at the Molecular Foundry was supported by the Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, of the US Department of Energy under contract no. DE-AC02-05CH11231. Support was also provided by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Office of Sponsored Research (OSR) (award OSR-2016-CRG5-2950-03) for data analysis.

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Authors and Affiliations



C.R. and N.B. designed and conducted experiments and performed the theoretical investigation. C.R. and D.B. performed sample fabrication. X.Z. and Y.W. guided the research. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Xiang Zhang.

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Ropp, C., Bachelard, N., Barth, D. et al. Dissipative self-organization in optical space. Nature Photon 12, 739–743 (2018).

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