British scientists win Nobel prize in physics for work

Three British scientists have won the Nobel prize in physics for discovering the weird properties of matter, paving the way for quantum computing.

David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz will share the 8m Swedish kronor (£718,000) prize, which was announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Tuesday morning.

The three physicists discovered totally unexpected behaviours of solid materials – and came up with a mathematical framework to explain these strange properties.

Their work is so intellectually dense that Thors Hans Hansson, a member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, attempted to explain it using the medium of pastries.

The Royal Academy of Sciences members, from left, Professor Nils Martensson, Professor Goran K Hansson and Professor Thomas Hans Hansson
The Royal Academy of Sciences members, from left, Professor Nils Martensson, Professor Goran K Hansson and Professor Thomas Hans Hansson

“The concept of topology may not be familiar to you,” he told 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.

“The number of holes is what the topologist would call a topological invariant.”

The scientists were credited for their work on “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”.

Prof Thors Hans Hansson, member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, uses a pretzel, a bagel and a bun to visualize his explanationProf Thors Hans Hansson, member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, uses a pretzel, a bagel and a bun to visualize his explanation

Prof Haldane, 65, who was born in London and is Professor of Physics at Princeton University in the US, said:  “I was very surprised and very gratified.

“It’s only now that a lot of tremendous new discoveries based on this work are now happening.”

Prof Thouless, 82, emeritus Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, born in Bearsden in Scotland, was awarded half of the prize.

He has made many theoretical contributions to the understanding of 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.

The other half of the prize will be shared equally between Prof Haldane, 65, and Michael Kosterlitz, who was born in Aberdeen in 1942.

The annual prize is awarded by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Prof Duncan Haldane 
Prof Duncan Haldane 

Steve Bramwell, a physics professor at the London Centre for Nanotechnology, said: “I think the Nobel prize to Kosterlitz, Thouless and Haldane is richly deserved.

“The behaviour of the materials around us is extremely complex – the job of physics is to identify simple principles by which we can understand the material world and predict new phenomena.

“This is a really difficult challenge because the average substance may contain a trillion trillion atoms, all interacting with each other.

“The ingenuity of Kosterlitz Thouless and Haldane has been to show how a large class of real materials can be understood in terms of the simple mathematical principles of topology.”

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