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Concept# Order and disorder

Summary

In physics, the terms order and disorder designate the presence or absence of some symmetry or correlation in a many-particle system.
In condensed matter physics, systems typically are ordered at low temperatures; upon heating, they undergo one or several phase transitions into less ordered states.
Examples for such an order-disorder transition are:
the melting of ice: solid-liquid transition, loss of crystalline order;
the demagnetization of iron by heating above the Curie temperature: ferromagnetic-paramagnetic transition, loss of magnetic order.
The degree of freedom that is ordered or disordered can be translational (crystalline ordering), rotational (ferroelectric ordering), or a spin state (magnetic ordering).
The order can consist either in a full crystalline space group symmetry, or in a correlation. Depending on how the correlations decay with distance, one speaks of long range order or short range order.
If a disordered state is not in thermodynamic equilibrium, one speaks of quenched disorder. For instance, a glass is obtained by quenching (supercooling) a liquid. By extension, other quenched states are called spin glass, orientational glass. In some contexts, the opposite of quenched disorder is annealed disorder.
The strictest form of order in a solid is lattice periodicity: a certain pattern (the arrangement of atoms in a unit cell) is repeated again and again to form a translationally invariant tiling of space. This is the defining property of a crystal. Possible symmetries have been classified in 14 Bravais lattices and 230 space groups.
Lattice periodicity implies long-range order: if only one unit cell is known, then by virtue of the translational symmetry it is possible to accurately predict all atomic positions at arbitrary distances. During much of the 20th century, the converse was also taken for granted – until the discovery of quasicrystals in 1982 showed that there are perfectly deterministic tilings that do not possess lattice periodicity.

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