3 physicists share Nobel Prize for unlocking secrets of exotic matter

4 Oct 2016

Abstract physics at play. Image: Microstock-Thailand/Shutterstock

Physicists David J Thouless, F Duncan M Haldane and J Michael Kosterlitz have been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts in unlocking the secrets of mysterious, exotic matter.

In announcing this year’s laureates for one of the most coveted of Nobel Prize awards, the panel of judges said that the three were awarded it “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.

More specifically, they commended the three researchers’ use of topological concepts in physics – a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change stepwise – to study unusual phases, or states, of matter such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films.

Future Human

While there were three winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics, the award has actually been split in two with Thouless receiving one half and Haldane and Kosterlitz sharing the other half.

In the 1970s, both Thouless and Kosterlitz made the breakthrough that overturned the theory at the time that superconductivity or superfluidity could not occur in thin layers.

However, they were able to demonstrate that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures while also explaining how phase transition – their discovered mechanism – makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

Nearly a decade later, Thouless once again looked at a previous experiment that used very thin electrically-conducting layers, in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps that were topological in their nature.

Could lead to new generation of quantum computers

At this same time, the third laureate – Duncan Haldane – discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

Today, their combined research on topological phases has been expanded from thin layers of material to 3D materials that could lay the foundations for new generations of electronics and superconductors, or future quantum computers.

To help the general public to explain such highly advanced concepts, members of the Nobel committee had a ‘sweet’ idea to use a cinnamon bun, a bagel and a pretzel as demonstrators.

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics also had more than one winner, with Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B McDonald splitting the prize.

The pair were nominated for the award for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.

Both researchers worked separately on different projects, but came to the same conclusion that was not only a historic discovery for particle physics, but had solved a decades-old neutrino mystery.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic