Nobel Prize in physics given to scientists who ‘revealed the secrets of exotic matter’

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the announcement was that it didn’t go to the team behind the discovery of gravitational waves

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 04 October 2016 10:47
Nobel Prize in physics given to scientists who 'revealed the secrets of exotic matter'

The Nobel Prize in physics has been given to three men who “revealed the secrets of exotic matter”.

David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz were together given the prize for their work in physics. Each of them worked to use topological concepts in physics – a branch of mathematics that has been put to use in finding new information about the world.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was that the award wasn’t given to the scientists behind the discovery of gravitational waves. That had been thought to be the most likely winner, being probably the most high-profile announcement in physics this year – and perhaps any other year this century.

But instead it went to the Britons for their work on just how strange matter can be. Their discoveries helped illuminate how in some realms matter can exist in strange states, and in doing so helped scientists work with new forms of materials.

Their work is far older than that on gravitational waves – with the winning research being conducted in the 1970s and 1980s. The Nobel committee often wait before they give out awards, making sure that the research is not contradicted.

The judges cited the huge impact of the scientists’ discoveries in explaining why they had been given the award. Much of that has only become clear in recent years – as the discoveries have made their way into electronics and materials physics – despite the discoveries themselves being made so long ago.

“This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states,” the judges said. “They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films.

“Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.”

David Thouless wins one half of the award himself. The other half will be split between Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz.

All three of the winners were born in the UK but now work in the US. Thouless, 82, is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. Haldane, 65, is a physics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. Kosterlitz, 73, is a physics professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

The physics prize is the second to be announced this week. They began on Monday, with the announcement that Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won for his work on autophagy, the process whereby cells break down and recycle themselves.

They will continue through this week – with the chemistry award next and the peace prize on Friday – and then into the next, when the economics and literature awards will be announced.

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