The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three British theoretical researchers. The trio was awarded for their “theoretical discoveries of topical phase transitions and topical phases of matter.” Their research is essential to the new generation of electronics and in constructing quantum computers. So, who are these researchers and what is topology?
The three researchers awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics are David J. Thouless, a professor emeritus from the University of Washington in Seattle, F. Duncan M. Haldane a professor from Princeton University in New Jersey and J. Michael Kosterlitz is a professor from Brown University in Rhode Island. While all were born in the United Kingdom, all three work as researchers in the United States.
The remarkable achievement uses advanced mathematical methods to study “unusual phases” of matter such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic fields. This is super thin material. Through their research, the trio discovered that matter could assume “strange states.”
Topology is an advanced branch of mathematical method which describes the study of properties that only change step-wise. The properties can be stretched, twisted and shaped in a different way. They just cannot be torn apart.
NPR reported that Swedish physicist Thors Hans Hansson simplified the importance of topology using three common items to make his point: a cinnamon bun, a bagel, and a pretzel. Using the baked goods to compare the amount of holes to lack of holes, Hansson illustrates that in topology, you need to look at the system as a whole.
“There are two important things with topology. One is that things only change in steps. So in the analogy, you can have zero holes – a bun, one hole – then it’s a bagel – or two holes – then it’s a pretzel. And you immediately, when you see such a thing, identify it as a ‘cinnamon bun’ because it has no holes, a pretzel because it has two.”
“But this also illustrates the other important aspect of topology, which is that by looking at only a small part of the system you can’t see this property. You have to look at the whole system. Then you will see ‘this has zero holes’, ‘this has one holes’, ‘this has two holes’, so that illustrates what is also true in the quantum physics world they’re discussing, that the system acts as a whole. You cannot derive these properties by just looking at an individual atom or an individual electron in your system. You have to have a theoretical, mathematical description of the whole system. THEN, you will get these topological properties, corresponding to zero holes, one hole, two holes and so on.”
So, how does it relate to the research conducted by the Nobel Prize winners? The Nobel Prize committee explained how Kosterlitz and Thouless proved that superconductivity could occur at lower temperatures, yet disappear in higher temperatures.
“In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.”
Then a decade later, Thouless and Haldane both worked with topical concepts. Thouless took the research analysis he made with Kosterlitz in the 70s and experimented with thin electrically conducting layers. At the very same time, Haldane took the earlier topology concepts and used them on three-dimensional materials.
“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.”
Haldane was quite emotional, as well as surprised at receiving the award, as it has been around 30 years since the initial research. Despite the decades, this contribution has been essential to the current work that is made in the field of electronics and semiconductors.
“It was a long time ago. But it’s only now that lots of tremendous new discoveries based on this original work have extended it in many ways.”
Along with the Nobel Prize, there is a monetary reward. The prize award money is eight million Swedish krona, which with the current exchange rate is approximately $937,000. As Thouless made “crucial contributions” on multiple fronts, he will be awarded half of the money, which amounts to $464,000. The other half of the money will be evenly split between Haldane and Kosterlitz.
Mistakenly reported dead, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, established the award after reading the scathing obituary about him in the papers. Deciding he wanted to be remembered differently, and as he did not have a wife nor children, he created the Nobel Prize and bequeathed all of his income to fund this prize.
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[Featured Image by Ker Robertson/Getty Images]