For the first time, researchers have gotten a detailed view of how atoms in a compound called vanadium dioxide move when an ultrafast laser pulse transforms the material from an electrical insulator to a conductor — and it’s nothing like scientists expected.

Rather than switching from one crystal formation to another in a direct, synchronized manner, like choreographed ballerinas, the atoms shift around in a disordered manner, more like clumsy partygoers doing the Cha Cha Slide. This new insight into the inner workings of vanadium dioxide, reported in the Nov. 2 Science, may inform engineers who are trying to harness the dual nature of the compound and others like it for new technologies.

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