2016 Nobel in Physics Shows Again: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

3 Who Studied Unusual States of Matter Win Nobel Prize in Physics

Source: NY Times

Three physicists born in Britain but now working in the United States wereawarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for research into the bizarre properties of matter in extreme states, including superconductors, superfluids and thin magnetic films.

David J. Thouless of the University of Washington was awarded half of the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $930,000, while F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University shared the other half.

The scientists relied on advanced mathematical models to study “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” in the words of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

Their studies may have major applications in electronics, materials science and computing. In an email, Michael S. Turner, a physicist at the University of Chicago, described the work as “truly transformational, with long-term consequences both practical and fundamental.”


F. Duncan M. Haldane, a British scientist at Princeton University, at his home in New Jersey. Credit Dominick Reuter/Reuters

Why did they win?

The three laureates sought to understand matter that is so cold or so thin that weird quantum effects overpower the random atomic jostling that dominates ordinary existence. Superconductivity, in which all electrical resistance vanishes in matter, is one example of such an effect.

Dr. Thouless and Dr. Kosterlitz worked together at the University of Birmingham in the 1970s to investigate what happens when two-dimensional films of matter shift from one exotic phase, like superconductivity, to another.

The key to their success was something called topology, a branch of mathematics focused on the fundamental shapes of things. At the Nobel news conference in Stockholm, Thors Hans Hansson, a member of the Nobel physics committee, tried to illustrate topology by holding up a cinnamon bun, a bagel and a pretzel.

To a topologist, he said, the only difference between them is the number of holes, as opposed to the characteristics an average person might notice, like saltiness or sweetness. There is no such thing as half a hole, the topologist would note, and the number of holes only changes stepwise in integers.

Likewise, the macroscopic properties of exotic matter change in stepwise “quantum leaps” if the materials involved are thin or small enough that their behavior is determined by the strange rules that govern the behavior of atoms.

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