Nobel juror uses bagels, pretzels to explain physics winners’ complex work
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Nobel juror uses bagels, pretzels to explain physics winners’ complex work

J. Michael Kosterlitz, one of trio awarded the prize, is son of German Jews who fled Nazis; his dad, biochemist Hans Walter Kosterlitz, left Berlin for UK in 1934, then brought his mother to safety

Professor Thors Hans Hansson gives a demonstration using a bagel to explain the work of the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (Anders Wiklund /TT via AP)
Professor Thors Hans Hansson gives a demonstration using a bagel to explain the work of the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (Anders Wiklund /TT via AP)

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.

At the press conference where the winners were announced, a Nobel juror used a bagel and talked of pretzels and buns to illustrate the trio’s complex work.

“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.

J Michael Kosterlitz (Courtesy)
J Michael Kosterlitz (Courtesy)

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.

Thors Hans Hansson (R) of the Nobel Committee for Physics, speaks at a press conference to announce the winners of the 2016 physics prize at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on October 4, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND)
Thors Hans Hansson (R) of the Nobel Committee for Physics, speaks at a press conference to announce the winners of the 2016 physics prize at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on October 4, 2016. (AFP/Jonathan Nackstrand)

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.”

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