July 18, 2024

Abstract: Maxwell electromagnetism, describing the wave properties of light, was formulated 150 years ago. More than 60 years ago it was shown that interfaces between optical media (including dielectrics, metals, negative-index materials) can support surface electromagnetic waves, which now play crucial roles in plasmonics, metamaterials, and nano-photonics. Here we show that surface Maxwell waves at interfaces between homogeneous isotropic media described by real permittivities and permeabilities have a topological origin explained by the bulk-boundary correspondence. Importantly, the topological classification is determined by the helicity operator, which is generically non-Hermitian even in lossless optical media. The corresponding topological invariant, which determines the number of surface modes, is a Z4 number (or a pair of Z2 numbers) describing the winding of the complex helicity spectrum across the interface. Our theory provides a new twist and insights for several areas of wave physics: Maxwell electromagnetism, topological quantum states, non-Hermitian wave physics, and metamaterials.