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Strange matter wins British scientists Nobel Prize in Physics

Published 04/10/2016

An overhead projector displays the photos of the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP)
An overhead projector displays the photos of the winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, Sweden (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP)

Three British-born scientists who joined the brain drain to the US and pioneered research into exotic states of matter share this year's Nobel Prize in Physics.

Professors David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz, were honoured with the top award by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The prize recognised work dating back decades that opened the door to a world where matter can assume unusual properties, such as conducting electricity with no resistance or allowing fluids to flow without friction.

The trio used a branch of mathematics called topology to study strange "phases" of matter such as superconductors, superfluids and thin magnetic films.

Their pioneering research has wide-ranging potential applications in electronics, material science, and quantum computing.

The citation read out at the awards ceremony in Stockholm said the prize was for "theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter".

Prof Thouless, 82, from the University of Washington, Seattle, will receive half the eight million krona (£727,000) prize money. The rest will be shared between Prof Haldane, 65, from Princeton University, and Prof Kosterlitz, 73, from Brown University.

Both Prof Thouless and Prof Kosterlitz were Scottish born. Prof Thouless, from Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire, obtained his PhD in 1958 from Cornell University, New York. Prof Kosterlitz's birth place was Aberdeen.

Prof Haldane is originally from London.

A stunned Prof Kosterlitz heard the news of his win in an underground car park in Helsinki, Finland, where he is currently a visiting professor at Aalto University.

Answering a call from Adam Smith, a journalist working for the Nobel Foundation, his first words were: "Jesus. That's incredible. That's amazing."

Later, speaking to the Associated Press news agency, Prof Kosterlitz said he was "young and stupid" when he took part in the research that earned him and two colleagues the prestigious award.

"It was a piece of work that I did as a very ignorant post-doc," he said. "Complete ignorance was actually an advantage because I didn't have any preconceived ideas. I was young and stupid enough to take it on.

"I'm a little bit dazzled. I'm still trying to take it in."

Prof Haldane said on Twitter that he betrayed his UK roots when told of the award.

He said: "I'm a bit British, or phlegmatic, about these things, so I didn't faint or anything."

The prize was announced by Professor Goran Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Topology describes properties that remain intact when an object is stretched, twisted or deformed.

The three scientists applied it to the study of very thin layers and ultra-fine threads of super-cooled material, showing how they transitioned from one "phase" to another in a stepwise fashion.

Familiar phases of matter include gases, liquids and solids. But at extreme temperatures unusual phases can arise, such as cold condensates in which separate atoms act as one.

Nobel physics committee member Professor Thors Hansson pulled a bagel, a bun and a pretzel out of a bag in an attempt to explain the difficult concepts.

The bagel had one hole, the pretzel two, and the bun none. Appreciating this was vital to understanding the work, he told the Royal Swedish Academy audience.

He said: " The importance with the hole is that things like taste, shape, and deformation can change continuously. The number of holes, something that we call the topological invariant, can only change like integers - one, two, three, zero.

"I challenge you to imagine what is half a hole. You cannot have half a hole. This fact, that you have integers that are of topological nature - that's intimately connected to the effects and the description of these phases that is at the basis of the prize."

Professor Sir Alan Fersht, Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, recalled how in his student days Prof Kosterlitz was a "mad climber".

The young Kosterlitz practised his mountaineering skills in his room on Tree Court, one of the oldest parts of the College.

"He built a traverse around the room where he would climb using his fingers and hanging on to the picture rail," said Sir Alan.

He added: " Mike was obviously an exceptionally clever guy. We went to physics lectures together in our first year, and he continued to specialise in physics in the second year while I specialised in chemistry. He was a very good physicist, and moved from the UK to America fairly rapidly."

Professor Nigel Cooper, from Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory, said the prize was "richly deserved".

He added: "T hrough the great breakthroughs they've made, Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz took a visionary approach to understanding how topology plays a role in novel materials."

The Nobel announcement came as something of a surprise because three scientists behind the momentous discovery of gravitational waves were widely tipped to win the prize.

They included another Briton, Professor Ronald Drever, 85, who moved to California from his native Scotland and co-founded the Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) project.

In February Ligo scientists announced the discovery of tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time generated by two colliding black holes 1.3 billion light years away.

The trio may yet win the Nobel Prize. It often takes time for work to be sufficiently recognised to qualify for a Nobel award.

In a telephone interview, Prof Haldane was critical of funding policies that led to the brain drain in the 1970s.

He said: "I suppose in the late seventies I think there was a bit of a de-emphasis ... on fundamental research, as opposed to useful research.

"I think it's a very bad thing when government agencies start to say ... you know, 'what's it used for?' Because all the big discoveries of really useful things don't come about because someone sits down and says: 'I want to discover something useful.'

"They occur because someone discovers something interesting and it turns out to be tremendously useful.

"It's very difficult to know whether something is useful, but one can know that it's exciting."

Prof Haldane said he knew there was a vague possibility of winning the prize, but "didn't think it would happen".

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