This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics recognizes three scientists “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” David J. Thouless of the University of Washington, Seattle, will take home half of the nearly $1 million prize; F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University will share the other half.
In the 1980s, these physicists together and separately published a series of theoretical papers describing the behavior of extremely thin layers of matter, and even one-dimensional threads of matter, in topological terms.
In mathematics, topology describes objects that can be deformed but not broken or stuck together. Invoking topology allowed the prizewinners to explain why the electronic and magnetic properties of these thin layers and threads of matter are quantized, that is, they can only change in integers.
Three decades later, the wide-reaching implications of these topological behaviors are being explored in materials, electronics, and even quantum computer design.
Haldane, reached by phone at the conference, said he was “very surprised and very gratified” by the award. At the time he and his colleagues produced their work, “we felt it was of scientific interest and mathematical interest, but we didn’t think it would ever find practical realization,” he said.
Technological advances that have made it possible to experiment on these quantum systems, have led to the explosion of fields such as topological insulators, in which electrons in thin films conduct around the edge, but not in the middle, of a material.
This ability to shuttle charge without disruption from the nearby environment holds promise not only for the development of ultrafast electronic devices but also for quantum computers. That’s because any perturbation of the extremely sensitive quantum states in such computing systems can cause them to collapse.
American Institute of Physics CEO Robert G.W. Brown offered “warmest congratulations” to the winners. "Their work exploring unusual states of matter may inspire new materials with novel applications in both materials science and electronics,” Brown said.