NO­BEL MAT­TERS:

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Mal­colm Rit­ter and Karl Rit­ter

David Thou­less, Dun­can Hal­dane and Michael Koster­litz, Bri­tish-born sci­en­tists now af­fil­i­ated with uni­ver­si­ties in the United States, won the No­bel Prize in physics for work in the 1970s and 1980s that shed light on strange states of mat­ter.

STOCK­HOLM— Howis a dough­nut like a cof­fee cup? The an­swer helped three Bri­tish-born sci­en­tists win the No­bel prize in physics Tues­day.

Their work could help lead to more pow­er­ful com­put­ers and im­proved ma­te­ri­als for elec­tron­ics.

David Thou­less, Dun­can Hal­dane and Michael Koster­litz, who are now af­fil­i­ated with uni­ver­si­ties in the United States, were hon­ored for work in the 1970s and ’80s that shed light on strange states of mat­ter.

“Their dis­cov­er­ies have brought about break­throughs in the the­o­ret­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of mat­ter’s mys­ter­ies and cre­ated new per­spec­tives on the devel­op­ment of in­no­va­tive ma­te­ri­als,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sci­ences said.

Thou­less, 82, is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton. Hal­dane, 65, is a physics pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton Univer­sity in New Jer­sey. Koster­litz, 73, is a physics pro­fes­sor at Brown Univer­sity in Prov­i­dence, R.I., and a vis­it­ing lec­turer at Aalto Univer­sity in Helsinki.

The $930,000 award was di­vided, with half go­ing to Thou­less and the other half to Hal­dane and Koster­litz. They in­ves­ti­gated strange states of mat­ter like su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity, the abil­ity of a ma­te­rial to con­duct elec­tric­ity with­out re­sis­tance.

Their work called on an ab­stract math­e­mat­i­cal field called topol­ogy, which presents a par­tic­u­lar way to de­scribe some prop­er­ties of mat­ter. In this realm, a dough­nut and a cof­fee cup are ba­si­cally the same thing be­cause each con­tains pre­cisely one hole. Topol­ogy de­scribes prop­er­ties that can only change in full steps; you can’t have half a hole. “Us­ing topol­ogy as a tool, they were able to as­tound the ex­perts,” the academy said.

In the 1970s, Koster­litz and Thou­less showed that thin lay­ers of ma­te­rial — es­sen­tially con­tain­ing only two di­men­sions rather than three — could un­dergo fun­da­men­tal changes known as phase tran­si­tions. One ex­am­ple is when a ma­te­rial is chilled enough that it can start show­ing su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity.

Sci­en­tists had thought phase changes were im­pos­si­ble in just two di­men­sions, but the two men showed that changes do oc­cur and that they were rooted in topol­ogy.

“This was a rad­i­cally new way of look­ing at phases of mat­ter,” said Sankar Das Sarma, a physi­cist at the Univer­sity of Mary­land in Col­lege Park.

“Now ev­ery­where we look we find that topol­ogy af­fects the phys­i­cal world,” he said.

Hal­dane was cited for the­o­ret­i­cal stud­ies of chains of mag­netic atoms that ap­pear in some ma­te­ri­als. He said he found out about the prize through an early morn­ing tele­phone call.

“My first thought was some­one had died,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “But then a lady with a Swedish ac­cent was on the line. It was pretty un­ex­pected.”

No­bel com­mit­tee mem­ber David Hav­i­land said this year’s prize was more about the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies even though they may re­sult in prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions.

“These the­o­reti­cians have come up with a de­scrip­tion of these ma­te­ri­als us­ing topo­log­i­cal ideas, which have proven very fruit­ful and has led to a lot of on­go­ing re­search about ma­te­rial prop­er­ties,” he said.

Hal­dane said the re­search is just start­ing to have prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions.

“The big hope is that some of these new ma­te­ri­als could lead to quan­tum com­put­ers and other new tech­nol­ogy,” he said.

Quan­tum com­put­ers could be pow­er­ful tools, but Koster­litz was not so sure about the prospects for de­vel­op­ing them.

“I’ve been wait­ing for my desk­top quan­tum com­puter for years, but it’s still show­ing no signs of ap­pear­ing,” he said. “At the risk of mak­ing a bad mis­take, I would say that this quan­tum com­pu­ta­tion stuff is a long way from be­ing prac­ti­cal.”

The No­bel chem­istry prize will be an­nounced Wed­nes­day and the No­bel Peace Prize on Fri­day. The economics and lit­er­a­ture awards will be an­nounced next week.

UNIVER­SITY OF CAM­BRIDGE

David Thou­less is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton.

MARKKU OJALA/COMPIC

Michael Koster­litz is a physics pro­fes­sor at Brown.

DREW ANGERER/GETTY

Dun­can Hal­dane is a physics pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton.

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