Topological non-Hermitian origin of surface Maxwell waves

Konstantin Y. Bliokh, Daniel Leykam, Max Lein, Franco Nori

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Citations (Scopus)


Maxwell electromagnetism, describing the wave properties of light, was formulated 150 years ago. More than 60 years ago it was shown that interfaces between optical media (including dielectrics, metals, negative-index materials) can support surface electromagnetic waves, which now play crucial roles in plasmonics, metamaterials, and nano-photonics. Here we show that surface Maxwell waves at interfaces between homogeneous isotropic media described by real permittivities and permeabilities have a topological origin explained by the bulk-boundary correspondence. Importantly, the topological classification is determined by the helicity operator, which is generically non-Hermitian even in lossless optical media. The corresponding topological invariant, which determines the number of surface modes, is a Z 4 number (or a pair of Z 2 numbers) describing the winding of the complex helicity spectrum across the interface. Our theory provides a new twist and insights for several areas of wave physics: Maxwell electromagnetism, topological quantum states, non-Hermitian wave physics, and metamaterials.

Original languageEnglish
Article number580
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2019 Dec 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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