N. Elmehed/Nobel Media 2016
David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz have won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics for their theoretical explanations of strange states of matter in two-dimensional materials, known as topological phases.
The trio’s work in the 1970s and 1980s laid the foundations for predicting and explaining bizarre behaviours that experimentalists discovered at the surfaces of materials, and inside extremely thin layers. These include superconductivity — the ability to conduct electricity without resistance — and magnetism in very thin materials.
At the time, these mathematical theories were quite abstract, said Haldane in an interview with the Nobel Commitee just after winning the prize. He said that he was “very surprised and very gratified” to receive the award.
But physicists are now exploring similar states of matter for potential use in a new generation of electronics, and in quantum computers. And the theories pioneered by the Nobel winners have been extended to develop exciting materials such as topological insulators — which don’t conduct electricity in their bulk but do on their surface.
Thouless and Kosterlitz’s series of theoretical breakthroughs began when, while working at the University of Birmingham, UK, the pair demonstrated that, in theory, superconductivity could occur at low temperatures in thin layers of materials, but that it would disappear at higher temperatures. They also explained the mechanism that would make the effect vanish.
Their theory, known as the Kosterlitz–Thouless (KT) transition, turned out to apply to many different kinds of 2D material, and became a useful tool throughout physics. (Vadim Berezinskii, a Ukrainian physicist who presented similar ideas and whose name is usually associated with the transition along with Kosterlitz and Thouless, might have been in line for the prize, but he died in 1980.)
In 1982, …