I've tried the wikipedia pages, papers (too complex) and other forum answers on this seemingly popular topic, to no avail. Without going into too much mathematics (sorry), could someone please explain the condensed matter analogue of the Higgs Mechanism?

E.g. I've heard that the U(1) symmetry is broken in a superconductor, and that you can think of this as resulting in the photon gaining a nonzero mass.

How is U(1) symmetry broken (why does the cooper pair BEC break U(1) symmetry), and how does this directly imply a photon mass? Thank you

  • $\begingroup$ When the electromagnetic field couples to matter, we usually stop calling the quantized excitations photons. I am not sure if there is a formal name in case of superconductors, but if the mechanism is unique, there should be. $\endgroup$
    – CuriousOne
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @CuriousOne as far as I am aware there is no such name, unfortunately. $\endgroup$
    – Rococo
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 0:28
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Related: How come a photon acts like it has mass in a superconducting field? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Rococo: How about "superon"? :-) In any case, is there a reasonable spectrum for these things? I thought the coupling of em fields to superconductors resulted in some highly non-trivial phenomena like flux-tubes, is there even a quasi-linear excitation? $\endgroup$
    – CuriousOne
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ Meissner effect has been explained thoroughly here. $\endgroup$
    – xiaohuamao
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 5:41

2 Answers 2


Just a short answer. A symmetry is spontaneously broken when the vacuum does not transform as a singlet under that symmetry. In the Higgs mechanism that breaks the electro-weak theory, the Higgs field acquires a nonzero vacuum expectation value (VEV) that transforms as a doublet and this breaks the symmetry.

In superconductivity the situation is a little different, because the VEV is not formed in an elementary field, but in a composite field. Here the force between electrons via the positive charges in the material becomes strong enough to form a condensate, which gives a nonzero VEV for this composite field. As a result the vacuum carries an electric charge and therefore does not transform as a singlet under the U(1) symmetry. This then breaks the symmetry and gives the photon a mass.

Prior to the symmetry breaking the photon couples to the electron. Due to the VEV (which is just a constant) the coupling term gives rise to a mass term for the photon. Since the condensate carries charge, it will couple to the photon, but in the resulting theory this should show up as a mass term. (Not sure about the details here though.)

This is an explanation in words, but there is something to be said for working this all out in terms of the math. The detail of how this works would thus become clearer.

  • $\begingroup$ Hey could you expand on how the nonzero VEV of the cooper pair field/condensate gives the photon a mass? i.e. the 'does not transform as a singlet' part. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – K. T.
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ I've added some explanation about the origin of the mass term, but I've never actually work through this myself, so I'm not sure exactly how it works. Perhaps somebody else could give a bit more detail. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ @K.T. Forget about the singlet/doublet idea. Start with a model having some symmetry. Ask for the ground state of this model. When the ground state does not present the symmetry the model started with, one says the symmetry is spontaneously broken. Now think about this idea in terms of wave-functions, and you'll get the singlet/doublet idea. In superconductors, the U(1) symmetry is not a symmetry, it's a gauge redundancy, and it's reduced down to Z2. You can find details about all that in the links I gave in a comment above. $\endgroup$
    – FraSchelle
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 14:29

If you are prepared to accept a simplistic answer, because it's the only one I can offer you at my current knowledge level, then here goes:

  1. Symmetry is broken, outside the superconductor, photons have no mass, inside they have an effective mass.

  2. Cooper pairs form inside the superconducting material and two electrons combine to form a boson. Their combined spins are either 1 or 0, so they can be treated as bosons.

  3. Cooper pairs can pass through the superconductor, unlike single electrons that would hit off the atoms in the superconductor on a regular basis. With Cooper pairs, every push on one electron produces an equal and opposite pull in the other electron, so effective movement of the Cooper pair through the superconductor is possible without the resistance encountered by a single electron.

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  1. When moving electrons are subject to forces which accelerate them, this results in very low energy photons. Because of the fact that photons have an effective mass in superconductors, electrons that lack sufficient energy, such as the Cooper pairs, can't make photons, and therefore can't lose energy.

  2. So what is the field that breaks the symmetry between photons outside the superconductor and those inside. Its the field created by Cooper pairs.

I fully admit that the above description is far too simple to answer any detailed questions. All of the above is based on the Sean Carroll book, "The particle at the end of the universe". It's popsci, sorry, but it's got no maths and it's a very basic summary.

I post this answer in the hope that someone may may correct the mistakes within it, as I have asked an almost similiar question to yours, Massless Particles and although you should read the helpful comments I received, to date I have not received an answer, possibly because I put the question too broadly.

Now a more sophisticated answer from Cooper Pairs and Phonons.

The behavior of superconductors suggests that electron pairs are coupling over a range of hundreds of nanometers, three orders of magnitude larger than the lattice spacing. Called Cooper pairs, these coupled electrons can take the character of a boson and condense into the ground state.

This pair condensation is the basis for the BCS theory of superconductivity. The effective net attraction between the normally repulsive electrons produces a pair binding energy on the order of milli-electron volts, enough to keep them paired at extremely low temperatures.

The transition of a metal from the normal to the superconducting state has the nature of a condensation of the electrons into a state which leaves a band gap above them. This kind of condensation is seen with superfluid helium, but helium is made up of bosons -- multiple electrons can't collect into a single state because of the Pauli exclusion principle. Froehlich was first to suggest that the electrons act as pairs coupled by lattice vibrations in the material. This coupling is viewed as an exchange of phonons, phonons being the quanta of lattice vibration energy. Experimental corroboration of an interaction with the lattice was provided by the isotope effect on the superconducting transition temperature. The boson-like behavior of such electron pairs was further investigated by Cooper and they are called "Cooper pairs". The condensation of Cooper pairs is the foundation of the BCS theory of superconductivity.


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