Three British scientists have won the Nobel prize in physics for their work on ‘exotic’ states of matter that could pave the way for quantum computers and more high-performance electronics.
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David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz won the prize for their work using a branch of maths called topology to explain why some materials have unexpected electrical properties, especially at very low temperatures and when the material is very thin.
The work, much of which was completed decades ago, is just starting to feed into practical applications which include:
The British scientists, who were all working in the USA at the time of their discoveries, were credited for their “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”
Recognising how complicated that sounds to anyone who doesn’t know about topology, Thors Hans Hansson, a member of the Novel Committee for Physics, tried to describe topology using pastries.
“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,” Prof Hansson told a press conference in Stockholm.
“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. I challenge you to imagine what is half a hole. You cannot have half a hole.”
Topologists are less concerned with what objects are made out of. They wouldn’t notice that one bun is savoury and one is sweet, for example. And they would argue that a bagel has more in common with a coffee cup than a bread roll because they both have one hole.
Topologists use maths to understand the shapes of objects and sue this knowledge to examine how shapes are related to each other.
The shapes of everyday things, like a tangle of string or a coffee mug, don’t seem to require sophisticated math to understand. But there’s an entire field of study, called topology, that examines how different shapes are related. Amazingly, some of this same math applies to quantum behaviour that emerges near absolute zero. And this year’s physics prize goes to three researchers that identified this relationship.
“I was very surprised and very gratified,” Haldane said in a telephone interview soon after he found out that he was named a co-winner. “It’s only now that a lot of tremendous new discoveries based on this work are now happening.”
The work completed by these scientist’s decades ago has given rise to a number of physics sub-fields that could lead to a host of promising practical applications including supercomputers and superconductors.
By altering materials topological states, scientists will one day be able to transport energy and information faster than ever before and lead to devices that use much less electricity. Experts believe that these breakthroughs are still one or two decades away, but achievability seems to be accelerating.