STOCKHOLM, Sweden — British scientists David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz won the Nobel Physics Prize on Tuesday for revealing the secrets of exotic matter, the Nobel jury said. Kosterlitz is the son of German Jews who came to Britain in the 1930s to escape the Nazis.
“This year’s laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films,” the jury said.
“Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter,” it added.
The laureates will share the eight million Swedish kronor (around $931,000 or 834,000 euros) prize sum.
Thouless won one-half of the prize, while Haldane and Hosterlitz share the other half.
The jury said their pioneering work “has boosted frontline 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.”
Kosterlitz is the son of German Jewish immigrants. His father, Hans Walter Kosterlitz, was a pioneer in biochemistry.
Hans Walter Kosterlitz fled to Scotland in 1934, after he was barred from his work at a Berlin hospital following the rise of the Nazis. He later arranged for his mother, brother and future wife Hannah to join him in Britain.
Topology, in which the three laureates specialize, is a branch of mathematics that investigates physical properties of matter and space that remain unchanged under deforming forces, including stretching.
It holds exceptional promise for quantum computing and tiny quantum devices as topological states can transport energy and information without overheating, unlike traditional quantum mechanics.
“They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures,” the jury noted.
Thors Hans Hansson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, resorted to the use of pastries in attempting to explain the winners’ complex work. “The concept of topology may not be familiar to you,” he said at a press conference in Stockholm. “I have a cinnamon bun, I have a bagel and a Swedish pretzel with two holes. Now for us these things are different. One is sweet one is salty, they are different shapes. But if you are a topologist there is only one thing that is really interesting with these things. This thing (the bun) has no holes, the bagel has one holes, the pretzel has two holes.”
In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps.
“He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.”
Kosterlitz, a dual UK-US citizen, said he got the news of the Nobel win in a parking garage while heading to lunch in Helsinki.
“I’m a little bit dazzled. I’m still trying to take it in,” he told AP.
While most people are familiar with objects in three dimensions, the Nobel laureates analyzed materials so thin they have only two dimensions, or even one.
Scientists had once been skeptical that any interesting atomic-scale behavior takes place in these settings, but the Nobel laureates proved them wrong, said Phillip Schewe, a physicist and writer at the University of Maryland in College Park.
For example, Kosterlitz and Thouless showed that, against expectations, two-dimensional materials could conduct electricity without any loss to resistance. That property is called superconductivity.
Kosterlitz said he was in his 20s at the time and that his “complete ignorance” was an advantage in challenging the established science.
“I didn’t have any preconceived ideas,” he said. “I was young and stupid enough to take it on.”
Their analysis relied on topology, which is the mathematical study of properties that don’t change when objects are distorted. A doughnut and a coffee cup are equivalent topologically because they each have exactly one hole. In topology, properties change only in whole steps; you can’t have half a hole.
Nobel committee member David Haviland said this year’s prize was more about theoretical discoveries even though they may result in practical applications.
“Topology is a very abstract branch of mathematics which isn’t used so frequently in physics,” Haviland said. “But these theoreticians have come up with a description of these materials using topological ideas, which have proven very fruitful and has led to a lot of ongoing research about material properties.”
Haldane said the award-winning research is just starting to have practical applications.
“The big hope is that some of these new materials could lead to quantum computers and other new technology,” he said.
Kosterlitz was not so sure.
“I’ve been waiting for my desktop quantum computer for years, but it’s still showing no signs of appearing,” he said. “At the risk of making a bad mistake, I would say that this quantum computation stuff is a long way from being practical.”