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A overhead projector displays the photos of the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz have won the Nobel physics prize. Nobel jury praises physics winners for 'discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter'. (Anders Wiklund/AP)
A overhead projector displays the photos of the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz have won the Nobel physics prize. Nobel jury praises physics winners for 'discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter'. (Anders Wiklund/AP)

‘Deep and beautiful work’ on quantum materials wins Nobel physics prize Add to ...

Three British-born American researchers whose discoveries shed light on the microscopic behaviour of materials that could be useful for the future development of quantum devices have won this year’s Nobel Prize for physics.

David J. Thouless, 82, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle; Duncan Haldane, 65, a professor of physics at Princeton University in New Jersey; and J. Michael Kosterlitz, 73, a physics professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., were named recipients of the physics prize on Tuesday.

Collectively, the three were recognized for their theoretical work, published decades ago, in two related areas known as topological phase transitions and topological states of matter. Their contributions have made it possible to understand and predict a range of phenomena at the quantum level and have stimulated a rapidly growing field that is looking to create new materials with useful properties.

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“I was very surprised and very gratified,” Dr. Haldane said when he was dialed-in to a news briefing at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, which administers the prize.

Dr. Haldane and Dr. Kosterlitz were each awarded one quarter of the $1.2-million prize for their contributions. The remaining half went to Dr. Thouless, who was recognized for his role in two distinct developments in the field.

For those unused to the Alice in Wonderland world of quantum materials, the scientific details behind Tuesday’s announcement might come across as esoteric if not utterly obscure. Yet they involve forms of matter with astonishing real-world properties, including superconductors – which convey electricity without resistance – and superfluids – liquids that flow without viscosity.

The Nobel-winning insights began in the early 1970s at the University of Birmingham when Dr. Koserlitz and Dr. Thouless showed that both superconductivity and superfluidity can occur when materials are in thin layers – effectively two dimensional – a scenario that was not considered possible at the time. They drew on a powerful branch of mathematics called topology that deals with the spatial properties of objects to discover this and to describe the transition from one state to another.

Ten years later, researchers were applying topological formulations not just to the transition between states of matter but to the behaviour of matter itself. Here Dr. Thouless made another key contribution by describing how topology explained the Quantum Hall effect, in which the ability of a two-dimensional system to conduct electricity increases in discrete jumps. At the same time, Dr. Haldane was working out a similar approach to describe the behaviour of lines of magnetized atoms called spin chains.

Thors Hans Hansson, a professor of theoretical physics and a member of the committee that selected this year’s laureates, called their work “very deep and beautiful.”

Yet even the Nobel committee had trouble explaining the science behind the selection in a way that was accessible to non-physicists.

“It’s one of the biggest areas of physics right now … but we’re not very used to the limelight,” said Roger Melko, a researcher in condensed matter physics and a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

This year’s physics prize underscores the growing attention to developments in the field of quantum materials – in Waterloo and elsewhere – which are edging closer to commercialization and attracting the attention of applied researchers in industry who are looking for routes to faster, smaller and more powerful computers and other electronic devices.

Dr. Haldane said he did not initially think that his work would have any applications but added that in materials science it is often the case that unexpected properties are eventually put to practical use.

“We have a long way to go to discover what’s possible,” he said.

The selection is in keeping with the Nobels’ long tradition of defying expectations. Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, it was widely anticipated that this year’s physics prize would go to researchers behind the first-ever detection of gravitational waves, which fulfilled a 100-year old prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“The Nobel committee often moves slowly and deliberately, and I have every confidence that the gravitational wave discovery will eventually be recognized,” said Harald Pfeiffer of the Canadian institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto, and a member of the consortium that was involved in the historic detection.

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