We are delighted to announce that three of our alumni shared in the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. Prof. David J. Thouless moved from the Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics Department in Cambridge to take up a lectureship in the Solid State Theory group (the early incarnation of the current Theory of Condensed Matter group or TCM) from 1964-65 before moving to the University of Birmingham where he remained on the faculty for many years. In the mid 80s, David returned to the Cavendish as a Royal Society Research Professor, moving soon after to the University of Washington, Seattle. Fortunately, he remains a frequent Summer visitor, colleague and friend to members of TCM and the Cavendish.
Prof. F. Duncan M. Haldane was a graduate student in TCM working under the supervision of another Nobel Laureate from the Cavendish, Prof. Philip Anderson, and receiving his PhD in 1978 before transferring to a post-doctoral position at the Institut Laue-Langevin.
Finally, Prof. J. Michael Kosterlitz, was an undergraduate in Cambridge in the mid-60s studying Natural Sciences at Gonville and Caius College.
Together, they received the Nobel Prize “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter".
Quoting from the press release of the Nobel Committee,
“This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.
“The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.
“In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.
“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. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.
Further information can be found at the Nobel Prize website.