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3 Scientists Win Nobel Prize in Physics for Studying ‘Strange’ States of Matter

Oct 05, 2016 05:07 AM EDT

Three physicists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their research on the unusual states of matter.

David Thouless from the University of Washington, Duncan Haldane from Princeton University, and Michael Kosterlitz from Brown University have used topology -- an advanced mathematical method -- to study the unusual phases or states of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films, the New York Times reports. The work may usher in new developments in material science, electronics, and quantum computing.

"I was very surprised and very gratified," Haldane said during a news conference held in Stockholm, Sweden. "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 it."

Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties by some fundamental characteristics. For instance, the difference between a cinnamon bun, a bagel and a pretzel is the number of holes. Topologists would say that there is no such thing as half a hole and that the number of holes would only change step-wise in integers, NYT reports.

In the 1980s, the long-held scientific belief was that superconductivity -- a state when a material has an electrical resistance of zero -- could not occur in thin layers. But through topology, Thouless and Kosterlitz illustrated that this was wrong.

They discovered that superconductivity could actually occur at low temperatures and at the same time explained the mechanism or phase transition that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures. According to a press release by Nobel Prize, Thouless experimented with extremely thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was measured as integer steps, showing that these integers were topological in nature. Using the same idea, Haldane found how topological concepts could be used to understand the magnetic properties found in some materials.

"It turned out that many materials people had been looking at for years had these properties," Haldane said in a report by New Scientist. "They just hadn't been seen."

Today, many topological phases are known to govern not only thin layers and threads but also ordinary three-dimensional materials.

"They have ignited a firestorm of research," Laura Greene, president of the American Physical Society, told NYT. "And although applications are still yet to come, I believe it's only a matter of time before their research leads to advances as unimaginable to us now as lasers and computer chips were a hundred years ago."

Thouless was awarded half of the prize of $930,000, while Haldane and Kosterlitz shared the other half.

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