Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Physics & Astronomy

First Advisor

Tom C. Lubensky


Chirality, or handedness, is a key concept spanning all fields of natural science, from biology to mathematics. Chiral structures can arise from achiral building blocks that lack a handedness if their assembly is unstable to chiral deformations, a phenomenon called spontaneous symmetry breaking. We theoretically study the role of chirality in two systems composed of liquid crystals dissolved or suspended in water, and our results match those obtained experimentally by our collaborators. In the first system, we study achiral liquid crystals whose Frank twist modulus is much lower than their splay and bend Frank moduli and which are confined in capillaries. Under homeotropic anchoring, their ground state configuration undergoes spontaneous chiral symmetry breaking when the twist modulus decreases enough relative to the splay and bend moduli. Under degenerate planar anchoring, a small twist-to-saddle-splay ratio of elastic moduli leads to degenerate twisted configurations even though an undeformed configuration is possible. Measuring the twist profile of an experimental system produces a value for the saddle-splay constant, which has been difficult to achieve previously. Under either boundary condition, domain walls and point defects, whose topological charges depend on chirality, separate domains with different degenerate configurations, and certain ones are energetically preferred over others. In the second system, we study filamentous viruses acting as colloidal liquid crystals under the influence of depletion, which promotes condensation of the viruses into 2D colloidal monolayers. These membranes have tunable chirality and show a rich array of emergent behaviors, including a transition from a circular shape to a striking starfish shape upon changing the chirality of constituent viruses, partial coalescence via domain walls through which the viruses twist by 180 degrees, and phase-separated rafts of a particular size when two virus species with different lengths and opposite chiralities are used. We formulate a simple theory combining Frank elasticity and depletion that shows how entropy and chirality drive the formation and behavior of these diverse structures. Our work may facilitate the design of chiral sensors and reconfigurable materials and suggests that chirality contributes not only biochemically but also physically to the behavior of lipid rafts in biomembranes.

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