Abstract:Traversal of a symmetry-breaking phase transition at finite rates can lead to causally separated regions with incompatible symmetries and the formation of defects at their boundaries, which has a crucial role in quantum and statistical mechanics, cosmology and condensed matter physics. This mechanism is conjectured to follow universal scaling laws prescribed by the Kibble–Zurek mechanism. Here we determine the scaling law for defect formation in a crystal of 16 laser-cooled trapped ions, which are conducive to the precise control of structural phases and the detection of defects. The experiment reveals an exponential scaling of defect formation γβ, where γ is the rate of traversal of the critical point and β=2.68±0.06. This supports the prediction of β=8/3≈2.67 for finite inhomogeneous systems. Our result demonstrates that the scaling laws also apply in the mesoscopic regime and emphasizes the potential for further tests of non-equilibrium thermodynamics with ion crystals.