David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz, all British-born scientists won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday, the 110th to be awarded by the Norwegian Royal Academy of Science.
The award was given to them for their work that reveals unusual states of matter, which has led to advances in electronics and potentially helping work on future quantum computers.
The scientists who all now work at U.S. universities, share the prize for their discoveries on abrupt changes in the properties, or phases, of ultra-thin materials.
Their research centers on topology, a branch of mathematics involving step-wise changes like making a series of holes in an object. The difficult-to-grasp concept was illustrated by Nobel Committee member Thors Hans Hansson at a news conference using a cinnamon bun, a bagel and a pretzel.
Phases are obvious when matter goes from solid to liquid to gas, but materials can also undergo topological step changes that affect their electrical properties. One example is a superconductor, which at low temperatures conducts electricity without resistance.
“Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in awarding the 8 million Swedish crown ($937,000) prize.
“Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.”
Thouless was awarded half the prize, with the other half divided between Haldane and Kosterlitz.
“Suddenly, people are realizing that the topological effects in quantum mechanics are just a tremendously rich subject,” said Haldane, speaking via a phone link to reporters in Stockholm.
The 65-year-old said he was “very surprised and very gratified” at receiving the call to say he had won.
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Andy Schofield, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Birmingham, where Kosterlitz and Thouless carried out their early work in the 1970s, said the new understanding of phase states was particularly promising in computing.
“One of the most exciting technological implications is in insulators that don’t carry electricity normally but can be forced to carry electrical current at the surface,” he told Reuters. “That’s a very robust state, which gives a stability that is essential to quantum computing.”
Superfast quantum computers, one of the holy grails of science, should be able to test multiple solutions to a problem at once and could in theory solve in seconds problems that take today’s fastest machines years to crack.
Traditional computers use binary bits of information to store data while quantum computers use “qubits” that can simultaneously be 0 and 1, making them ultra-fast but unstable.
Physics is the second of this year’s crop of Nobels and comes after Japan’s Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the prize for medicine on Monday.
Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded between 1901-2016 are now 110.
Forty seven of them were won by one Laureate only. And only two women have picked the award, till date.
One person, John Bardeen, had won the Physics Prize twice.