The Physics Nobel Prize

The Physics Nobel Prize

This Tuesday the Physics Nobel Prize was awarded. Three scientists jointly received the award for their work in the field of physics. The Nobel Prize committee acknowledged the work that they did to elucidate the properties of “exotic states of matter”.

In the 1970s and the 1980s David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz together made groundbreaking discoveries. Their work made the field of condensed matter physics possible. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the body that selects the recipients of each prize, decided to honor the work of the three physicists this year.

Applications of the Research

The work that Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz did could lead the way to creating new, special materials that have novel properties. It could even help the quest of turning quantum computers into a reality.

Laura Greene is chief scientist at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at the University of Florida in Tallahassee. Talking about the applications of the research, she said they could be transformative. If applied to our modern world, the research could lead to “better high-temperature superconductors, better ferroelectrics, better functional correlated electron materials”.

In the ordinary world, there are a few phases in which matter exists: the solid state, the liquid state, gas state and plasma, an ionized state. But other states can be possible.

For several decades, scientists have been looking at the way matter behaves in certain extreme circumstances. For example, when matter is cooled to a few degrees away from absolute zero. Experiments have uncovered a number of exotic phases. In that state, matter behaves in different and strange ways. The ways in which matter behaves are counterintuitive and can take you by surprise.

As an example of an experiment, researchers could make super-cooled helium go up the sides of a container. They have also succeeded in turning certain materials into a kind of superconductors. With these superconductors, the charged particles travel at almost the speed of light.

Scientific Research

Before the work that Thouless and Kosterlitz did in the 1970s, scientists believed that phase transitions could not happen in a two-dimensional material. They thought that thermal fluctuations would eliminate any semblance of order. The research that the pair did upended prevailing theories. It showed that you can have superconductivity as well as superfluidity in a two-dimensional world.

In the 1980s, Thouless went further and showed the way in which the electrical conductance of matter changes in specific, integer-like steps. That is an example of a concept called topology. At the same time, Haldane was verifying that topology can be used to better understand the way tiny chains of atomic magnets behave.

All the three winners were born in the UK. They have worked at universities in the United States and Europe. Haldane, who is 65, once taught at UC San Diego and USC. Currently, he is a professor of physics at Princeton University. Kosterlitz is now in his early 70s. He teaches physics at Brown University. The two are going to share half of the prize. The prize is worth $930,000 in total. The other half is going to go to Thouless. He is 82 and works at the University of Washington where he is professor emeritus.


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