A coffee cup and a doughnut are similar, but not compared to a pair of glasses — this year's laureates for the Nobel Prize in Physics has the scientific evidence to back up this statement. It all boils down to the number of holes.
The prize will go to three U.S.-based scientists analyzing new states of matter through advanced mathematical means in the examination of unusual phases or states of matter, among which superfluids and superconductors.
David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz are British-born citizens affiliated with universities in the U.S., and who dedicated most of the scientific work they conducted in the '70s and '80s analyzing strange states of matter. While Thouless received half of the $930,000 prize, Haldane and Kosterlitz split the other half.
This highly abstract mathematical field describes the properties of matter in a scientifically unusual manner, implying that a fundamental physical characteristic of two objects can be reduced to having a hole, for instance. This would make both a doughnut and a cup of coffee pretty similar, as their properties can only change step-wise — it's impossible to have any of these two objects with half holes in them.
Their exploration has led to a scientific interest in more exotic phases of matter, as well as hope in employing them and their properties in materials science and electronics.
The practical purpose of these new scientific directions focusing on quantum physics is using the material properties in creating better technological tools. However, these practical implications will take time, and while the team of physicists has proven to be exceptional pioneers in the area, much more substantial scientific examination will be necessary in this new niche.
"We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers," says the press release.
Topological insulators are materials with non-trivial topological order, which acts as an insulator on the inside, but contains conduct states on the outside. This exceptional property allows the electrons to move exclusively along the surface of the material. Furthermore, the conductive surface states are also supported by ordinary band insulators, which are symmetry protected by two special characteristics of their own: the conservation of their number of particles and reversal symmetry.
Haldane was informed about the prize during an early morning phone call.
"My first thought was someone had died. But then a lady with a Swedish accent was on the line. It was pretty unexpected," he told to the Associated Press.
The series of announcements of this year's Nobel Prize laureates began on Oct. 3, starting with the Medicine section and the biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi awarded for his groundbreaking discoveries on autophagy, the process through which cellular tissues recycle their contents.