Trio of physicists awarded Nobel for study of exotic phases of matter

The three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday were all born in Britain but all now work in the United States.

A screen showing pictures of the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics during a news conference by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden October 4, 2016. From left they are: David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz.

Three scientists born in Britain who work in the United States received the Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday for decades-old discoveries surrounding unusual phases of matter. Researchers say the findings could be applied to new applications for electronics and materials science.

David J. Thouless of the University of Washington, F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University, and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University received recognition from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm for “topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” a branch of mathematics focused on incremental change in properties. 

While the research focuses on theory, the findings prove useful to understand how easily electric current travels through a substance, or its conductance, The New York Times reported. Such understanding has practical implications for building electronics, superconductors, and computers.

"Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter," the academy said in a statement.

The recognition comes with an 8 million Swedish kronor prize, the equivalent of $937,000. Dr. Thouless will receive half of that sum, while Dr. Haldane and Dr. Kosterlitz will split the other half.

The now award-winning work began in the 1980s when Thouless discovered that the conductivity of electricity could be measured in topological integers. Around the same time, Haldane found that similar concepts could be applied to understand the properties of small magnets found in certain materials.

Since then, the research has paved the way for an increased understanding of topological phases in a number of materials. 

“Over the last decade, this area has boosted front-line research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers,” the academy said.

Given the three-decade lapse in time between the work and the academy’s recognition, the award came as a surprise to the researchers.

“I was very surprised and very gratified,” Haldane, who received the news Tuesday morning from the Nobel committee, told the news conference in Stockholm. “The work was a long time ago, but it’s only now that a lot of tremendous new discoveries are based on this original work, and have extended it.”

The discovery unveiled regularities in how matter behaves that many had not previously expected, Nils Martensson, acting chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics, told a news conference.

"This has paved the way for designing new materials with novel properties and there is great hope that this will be important for many future technologies," he said.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.

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