Former DoS wins Nobel Prize for Physics

Image credit: N. Elmehed/ Nobel Prize Media

David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz have won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on condensed matter physics.

The three scientists are all Cambridge alumni. Thouless was an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, and later the first Director of Studies for Physics at Churchill. Haldane did both his undergraduate and PhD at Christs’ and Kosterlitz was an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius before moving to Oxford for his PhD.

The University is no stranger to Nobel Prizes, with Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz being the 93rd, 94th and 95th alumni to be honoured.  This is, however, the first time since Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 that three alumni have been jointly awarded a Nobel.

The physicists were awarded the prize for their work on unusual states of matter, such as superfluids (which have no resistance to flow) and superconductors (which have no resistance to current). Critically, they used a branch of mathematics, known as topology, which describes properties of objects which don’t change when they are stretched or bent. A coffee cup has the same topology as a doughnut, because they both have one hole, but is different from a football. By using topology to describe phase transitions in thin layers of materials, Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz opened up a whole new branch of research. Professor Nigel Cooper, who studies condensed matter theory at the Cavendish Laboratory, commented to the University, “This prize is richly deserved… Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz took a visionary approach to understanding how topology plays a role in novel materials.”

The work for which the prize was awarded was carried out in the 1980s but its implications have only become clear more recently. Speaking to the BBC, Cooper said that the applications of this work are “"not in your iPhone, but [are] used in government labs around the world. ” Many of the potential uses of phase transitions in unusual matter are in quantum computing – a Physics buzzword which is inching closer to reality.

For the scientists themselves, the prize came as something of a surprise. Speaking on BBC radio 4 David Thouless commented that “everyone wants to find neat stuff”, but that he didn’t think most people set out to win the prize. Haldane told the Institute of Physics, “It’s only now that there’s a lot of tremendous new discoveries based on this original work...It’s taught us that quantum mechanics can behave far more strangely than we could guess.”

The Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Peace and Economics will be announced over the next 5 days. 

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