Date Published:3 Jun 2015
We study experimentally what is arguably the simplest yet nontrivial colloidal system: two-dimensional clusters of six spherical particles bound by depletion interactions. These clusters have multiple, degenerate ground states whose equilibrium distribution is determined by entropic factors, principally the symmetry. We observe the equilibrium rearrangements between ground states as well as all of the low-lying excited states. In contrast to the ground states, the excited states have soft modes and low symmetry, and their occupation probabilities depend on the size of the configuration space reached through internal degrees of freedom, as well as a single “sticky parameter” encapsulating the depth and curvature of the potential. Using a geometrical model that accounts for the entropy of the soft modes and the diffusion rates along them, we accurately reproduce the measured rearrangement rates. The success of this model, which requires no fitting parameters or measurements of the potential, shows that the free-energy landscape of colloidal systems and the dynamics it governs can be understood geometrically.