Weak symmetry breaking in two-dimensional topological insulators

Chenjie Wang, Michael Levin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


We show that there exist two-dimensional (2D) time-reversal invariant fractionalized insulators with the property that both their boundary with the vacuum and their boundary with a topological insulator can be fully gapped without breaking time-reversal or charge conservation symmetry. This result leads us to an apparent paradox: we consider a geometry in which a disklike region made up of a topological insulator is surrounded by an annular strip of a fractionalized insulator, which is, in turn, surrounded by the vacuum. If we gap both boundaries of the strip, we naively obtain an example of a gapped interface between a topological insulator and the vacuum that does not break any symmetries - an impossibility. The resolution of this paradox is that this system spontaneously breaks time-reversal symmetry in an unusual way, which we call weak symmetry breaking. In particular, we find that the only order parameters that are sensitive to the symmetry breaking are nonlocal operators that describe quasiparticle tunneling processes between the two edges of the strip; expectation values of local order parameters vanish exponentially in the limit of a wide strip. Also, we find that the symmetry breaking in our system comes with a ground-state degeneracy, but this ground-state degeneracy is topologically protected, rather than symmetry protected. We show that this kind of symmetry breaking can also occur at the edge of 2D fractional topological insulators.

Original languageEnglish
Article number245136
JournalPhysical Review B - Condensed Matter and Materials Physics
Issue number24
StatePublished - 30 Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Electronic, Optical and Magnetic Materials
  • Condensed Matter Physics


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