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In a deceptively drab black crystal, physicists have stumbled upon a baffling behavior, one that appears to blur the line between the properties of metals, in which electrons flow freely, and those of insulators, in which electrons are effectively stuck in place. The crystal exhibits hallmarks of both simultaneously.

“This is a big shock,” said Suchitra Sebastian, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Cambridge whose findings appeared today in an advance online edition of the journal Science. Insulators and metals are essentially opposites, she said. “But somehow, it’s a material that’s both. It’s contrary to everything that we know.”

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