The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three Britons for their pioneering work on strange forms of matter.
The Nobel Committee said that David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz had all “opened the door on an unknown world”.
Their work had focused on the the mysterious realm of phase transitions - the process where matter transforms e.g. when ice melts to become water.
For those of you who aren’t experts on topological phases of matter (shame on you), thankfully there are some relatively easy ways to explain it.
Firstly you need to examine the environment within which these phases of matter exist. We most commonly know just three states: gas, liquid and solid.
However at extremely low or high temperatures, matter can assume exotic states that have rarely been seen or examined before.
Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz have all been focusing on these extreme environments, looking at the topological states that are formed when the matter phases.
So once you know the environment within which this matter exists, you now need to examine that matter. This is called topology, as helpfully explained by this Nobel committee member using a cinnamon bun, a bagel and a pretzel:
In these extreme environments matter can take on some truly alien shapes. Kosterlitz and Thouless have studied extremely thin layers of matter that could be described as two-dimensional.
What’s even most astonishing is that Haldane actually went on to discover even small threads that could be considered one-dimensional.
In response to the hearing he had won Professor Haldane reportedly said he was “very surprised and very gratified.”
“The work was a long time ago but it’s only now that a lot of tremendous new discoveries are based on this original work and have extended.”
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