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2016 Nobel Prize in physics awarded for revealing ‘the secrets of exotic matter’

The 2016 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three British scientists for their research in topology, which studies the phases and transitions of matter. (Video: Reuters)

David J. Thouless of University of Washington, F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for discoveries of "topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter." All three laureates were born in Britain, but now conduct their research at universities in the United States.

Most matter exists in the states we see every day: gases, liquids and solids. But at extremely low or high temperatures, matter can start to behave strangely. The three laureates have used advanced mathematical modeling to demonstrate some of the strange properties that can arise in unusual states of matter. In cold layers of atoms so flat they can be considered two dimensional, you can find superconductors — materials that electrical current can flow through with no resistance from the particles therein — and superfluids, where frictionless vortexes can spin forever without slowing down.

Using topology — the study of changes that occur step-wise, involving properties that remain intact when an object is stretched, twisted or deformed but not if it is torn apart — the three researchers helped reveal the stunningly strange behaviors of these exotic states of matter. From a topological standpoint, a bagel, a cinnamon bun and a pretzel are distinguished only by the number of holes they contain. If an object changes from having one hole to two, it is said to have undergone a topological phase transition.

"In the world of topology, changing from a normal conductor to a superconductor might be the equivalent of a bagel transforming into a bun," The Guardian reports. To be perfectly honest, the bagel metaphor doesn't make it all that much easier to understand. But in essence: It's a phase change, but one far more intriguing than the simple snap from liquid to solid. By finding an area of mathematics that can explain the state changes behind these strange qualities, the laureates make those properties easier to predict and study.

We could have the laureate's findings to thank for the next generation of electronics. Scientists are starting to get excited about topological insulators, which are materials that – through the mysterious states explored by the 2016 laureates – are able to block electrons from passing through them while allowing electrons to travel over their surfaces. Usually, a material is either an insulator – keeping electrons out – or a conductor, easing them through. The idea of a single material that can accomplish both turns a lot of what we used to "know" about physics on its head. Some researchers hope that materials with these oddball properties could be used to build quantum computers, which would be much more powerful than conventional computers.

"Today's advanced technology — take, for instance, our computers — relies on our ability to understand and control the properties of the materials involved," Nils Mårtensson, acting chairman of the Nobel committee, said Tuesday. "And this year's Nobel laureates in their theoretical work discovered a set of totally unexpected regularities in the behavior of matter, which can be described in terms of an established mathematical concept — namely, that of topology."

"This has paved the way for designing new materials with novel properties and there is great hope that this will be important for many future technologies," Mårtensson said.

In the early 1970s, Kosterlitz and Thouless modeled the existence of superconductivity and suprafluidity in thin layers, overturning the prevailing theory that such configurations of matter could not exist. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, called phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

In the 1980s, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

Haldane spoke to the press gathered in Stockholm for Tuesday's announcement, having been reached on the phone around 4:30 a.m. Eastern time.

"I was, as everyone else is, very surprised," Haldane said. "And very gratified."

"It was a long time ago," he said of his own research, "But it’s only now that lots of tremendous new discoveries based on this original work have extended it in many ways."

Last year's Nobel Prize in physics was shared by Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo and Arthur B. McDonald of Queen’s University in Canada. Kajita and McDonald were honored for their work on neutrinos, some of the subatomic particles that make up our universe. The two men contributed to research showing that neutrinos, once thought to be massless, indeed have mass.

The award, which was established by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel in 1895 and first awarded in 1901, comes with a prize worth 8 million Swedish krona, or about $937,000. According to the Royal Swedish Academy, the prize is being split two ways — Thouless will receive half the 8 million krona, or around $464,000, because he made "crucial contributions" on multiple fronts. Haldane and Kosterlitz will split the remaining $464,000.

This post has been updated. 

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