Nobel Prize in Physics to three topologists

Knapps

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06, Oct 2016

Three British-born scientists have won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics for revealing unusual states of matter, leading to advances in electronics that could aid researchers trying to develop quantum computers. David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz, who all work at U.S. universities, share the prize for their discoveries on abrupt changes in the properties, or phases, of ultra-thin materials. Knappily explains their ‘topological’ work.

What is the announcement?

The Nobel Prize in Physics for the year 2016 has gone to three men - David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz - who revealed the secrets of exotic matter and explained the very weird thing that happens to matter when you squish it down to a flat plane, or cool it down to near absolute zero.

  • Very few explorers of science have delved into stranger worlds than these three newest Nobel Laureates. All the laureates were born in the UK.
  • They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films.
  • Travel into mysteries: Using topology, these three scientists were able to elucidate mysteries like how super-cold films of helium change their phase of matter, and how those phase transitions then change their properties (like how conductive they are to electricity and magnetism). Announcement
  • The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 with one half to David J. Thouless, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA and the other half to F. Duncan M. Haldane, Princeton University, NJ, USA and J. Michael Kosterlitz Brown University, RI, USA for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.
  • Recognition: According to Thors Hans Hansson, a Nobel committee member, at the Nobel announcement, “This prize is a reward for their theoretical work. It has combined beautiful mathematics and profound physics insights, and achieved unexpected results that have been confirmed by experiments.”

Topology: It is a system of mathematics that focuses on properties which change only by well-defined increments. It also studies what properties are preserved when objects are stretched, twisted, or deformed. A topological invariant can only have integer numbers.

Why do they deserve the Nobel?

  • Overturned theories of superconductivity and suprafluidity: In the early 1970s, Kosterlitz and 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.
  • Explained Quantum Hall effect: In 1982, Thouless used this idea to explain the mysterious Quantum Hall effect of electric conductance. Within a thin layer at very low temperatures and a high magnetic field, electric conductance was found to build in units that could be measured with extreme precision - first nothing, then one unit, then two units. He proved that the steps of this effect can be explained by a topological invariant. It worked by multiples of an integer
  • Extension of the concept: In 1988, Duncan Haldane pushed this line of research to a new frontier, discovering that thin semiconductor layers can exhibit the Quantum Hall effect even without a magnetic field. He discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.
  • Now ‘exotic’ but could be ‘real’ in future: Their research launched an ongoing race to discover new topological phases of matter hidden within layers, chains and ordinary three-dimensional materials. These discoveries might today be considered abstract or exotic, but they could one day pave the way for the discovery of indispensable, commonplace materials.

When was the last time a woman got Nobel Prize in Physics?

Lack of diversity: Many scientists criticized the lack of diversity in awarding the honor in the category of Physics. This is because even this year all the Nobel Prize winners for Physics were male. Till now only two women have ever been awarded Nobel Prize in Physics.

  • Critics: Agreed that this Nobel Prize, and even most of the best of men find it difficult to win it. Plenty of men who deserve the honor will never get that early-morning call from Stockholm, either. But someone has to win it each year. It would have been nice if the committee had honored a woman just once or twice in the past half-century.
  • Least percentage of women honored: Of the 201 people who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, just 2 have been women. This is the category with the smallest percentage of female winners. This is in spite of the number of women obtaining doctorates in physics is actually increasing.
  • The two women: Polish-born French physicist Marie Curie took the prize in 1903 for her pioneering work in radioactivity. Curie also won the Nobel in Chemistry in 1911. German-born American Maria Goeppert-Mayer won in 1963 for her discoveries in nuclear shell structure. Women and the Nobel Prize:
  • The Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences have been awarded to women 49 times between 1901 and 2015. Only one woman, Marie Curie, has been honored twice. This means that 48 women in total have been awarded the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 2015. Physics winners are the youngest. With an average age of 55, Nobel physics laureates are the youngest of all laureates.
  • Australian-born British physicist William Lawrence Bragg was just 25 years old when he won the prize, along with his father William Henry Bragg, for their work on X-ray crystallography in 1915.
  • However, this year the Physics winners are at the upper end of the age bracket - Thouless is 82, Kosterlitz is 74, and Haldane is 65.

Where is their research being applied?

  • Haldane, when contacted, said that he himself is surprised and gratified by the honor. “This work was a long time ago, but it's only now that a lot of tremendous new discoveries that are based on this original work ... are now happening.”
  • New fields of application: Many from the scientific community echoed similar thoughts and noted that scientists around the world now use these tools to work towards practical applications in electronics, new materials and even components in a new quantum computer.
  • Increase in computing capacity: The understanding of phase states was particularly promising in computing. Research is going on in the labs to get these new materials which have interesting properties of conducting electricity. And one of the dreams is that these materials can be used for carrying information and increase the computing power enormously.
  • Topological insulators: Their research has also led scientists to develop new materials with novel properties. Some of these materials are called “topological insulators,” which conduct electricity solely on their surface. Although these topological insulators haven’t made it into any commercial products yet, the Nobel committee and the scientists are still excited about the possibilities of using them in quantum computing and other yet-to-be discovered applications.
  • Case-in-point: One of these insulators, called stanene, a one-atom thick layer of tin, conducts electricity at high temperatures with little resistance. Scientists hope stanene could perhaps replace copper components in computers.

Who were these scientists?

  • David James Thouless is a British condensed-matter physicist and Wolf Prize winner. He was a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, and Professor of mathematical physics at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom from 1965-1978, before becoming a professor of physics at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1980. He has made many theoretical contributions to the understanding of extended systems of atoms and electrons, and of nucleons. His work includes work on superconductivity phenomena, properties of nuclear matter, and excited collective motions within nuclei.
  • Frederick Duncan Michael Haldane is a British physicist who is Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics at the physics department of Princeton University in the United States, and a Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He is known for a wide variety of fundamental contributions to condensed matter physics including the theory of Luttinger liquids, the theory of one-dimensional spin chains, the theory of fractional quantum hall effect, exclusion statistics, entanglement spectra and much more.
  • John Michael Kosterlitz is a professor of Physics at Brown University. After a few postdoctoral positions, including stints at the University of Birmingham, collaborating with David Thouless, and at Cornell University, he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Birmingham in 1974, first as a lecturer and, later, as a reader. Since 1982, he has been professor of physics at Brown University. He is currently a visiting research fellow at Aalto University in Finland. He does research in condensed matter theory, one- and two-dimensional physics; in phase transitions: random systems, electron localization, and spin glasses; and in critical dynamics: melting and freezing.

How are the Nobel Laureates selected?

The work on topological insulators winning the prize came as bit of surprise for Physicists.
  • LIGO The detection of gravitational waves at LIGO was one of the most stunning physics announcements of the year, confirming a prediction made by Einstein more than 100 years ago. Many predicted the scientists who led that work would win.
  • One reason why it could have missed out is that the breakthrough, announced by international researchers in February, may have come too late for the Nobel Committee (Nobel’s deadline for consideration is January) to take it up this year.
  • Also, the Nobel Committee typically awards scientific discoveries many years after they are first shared — after they have truly impacted the wider world.
  • For in-depth analysis of many such topics, download Knappily.  KNAPPILY is a must-have app for anyone who wants to know more, to know better and to know faster.

    Tags | David Thouless Duncan Haldane Michael Kosterlitz Physics quantum computers Three British-born scientists unusual states of matter