Topological Protection Brought to Light by the Time-Reversal Symmetry Breaking
Recent topological band theory distinguishes electronic band insulators with respect to various symmetries and topological invariants, most commonly, the time reversal symmetry and the Z2 invariant. The interface of two topologically distinct insulators hosts a unique class of electronic states—the helical states, which shortcut the gapped bulk and exhibit spin-momentum locking. The magic and so far elusive property of the helical electrons, known as topological protection, prevents them from coherent backscattering as long as the underlying symmetry is preserved. Here we present an experiment that brings to light the strength of topological protection in one-dimensional helical edge states of a Z2 quantum spin-Hall insulator in HgTe. At low temperatures, we observe the dramatic impact of a tiny magnetic field, which results in an exponential increase of the resistance accompanied by giant mesoscopic fluctuations and a gap opening. This textbook Anderson localization scenario emerges only upon the time-reversal symmetry breaking, bringing the first direct evidence of the topological protection strength in helical edge states.