Well, people were. Xiao-Gang Wen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michael Levin at Harvard University ran with Laughlin's ideas and have come up with a prediction for a new state of matter, and even a tantalising picture of the nature of space-time itself. Levin presented their work at the Topological Quantum Computing conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, early this month.
The first hint that a new type of matter may exist came in 1983. "Twenty five years ago we thought we understood everything about how matter changes phase," says Wen. "Then along came an experiment that opened up a whole new world."
In the experiment, electrons moving in the interface between two semiconductors behaved as though they were made up of particles with only a fraction of the electron's charge. This so-called fractional quantum hall effect (FQHE) suggested that electrons may not be elementary particles after all. However, it soon became clear that electrons under certain conditions can congregate in a way that gives them the illusion of having fractional charge - an explanation that earned Laughlin, Horst Störmer and Daniel Tsui the Nobel prize (New Scientist, 31 January 1998, p 36).
Wen suspected that the effect could be an example of a new type of matter. Different phases of matter are characterised by the way their atoms are organised. In a liquid, for instance, atoms are randomly distributed, whereas atoms in a solid are rigidly positioned in a lattice. FQHE systems are different. "If you take a snapshot of the position of electrons in an FQHE system they appear random and you think you have a liquid," says Wen. But step back, and you see that, unlike in a liquid, the electrons dance around each other in well-defined steps.
It is as if the electrons are entangled. Today, physicists use the term to describe a property in quantum mechanics in which particles can be linked despite being separated by great distances. Wen speculated that FQHE systems represented a state of matter in which entanglement was an intrinsic property, with particles tied to each other in a complicated manner across the entire material.
This led Wen and Levin to the idea that there may be a different way of thinking about matter. What if electrons were not really elementary, but were formed at the ends of long "strings" of other, fundamental particles? They formulated a model in which such strings are free to move "like noodles in a soup" and weave together into huge "string-nets".