Thouless PhD '58

October 4, 2016

Cornell Alumnus Wins 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics

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The Royal Swedish Academy for Science awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics to David Thouless PhD ’58 and two fellow scientists on Tuesday for  work studying matter that can assume “strange states.”

Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane, Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz, Brown University, were recognized for their use of “advanced mathematical methods” to study the unusual states of matter, according to the press release. These advanced methods included usage of superconductors, superfluids and magnetic films.

“Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter,” the release said. “Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.”

An understanding of topological concepts in physics was essential to their discoveries, The New York Times reported. Topology is a branch of mathematics that studies properties of objects that are preserved through deformations, twistings, and stretchings. Essentially, there is no topographic difference between a coffee cup and a doughnut.

In the 1980s, Thouless explained that the precise integers attained in a previous experiment for measuring conductance — conducted with very thin electrically conducting layers — was topographical in nature. Around that time, Haldane discovered how topological concepts could be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials, according to The Times.

“We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials,” the academy said. “Over the last decade, this area has boosted front-line 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.”

Two of the three nobel prize winners have strong ties to Cornell. As a postdoc, Kosterlitz collaborated with Thouless while he was still at Cornell, perhaps originating a future partnership in Ithaca. Thouless was awarded half of the prize of eight million Swedish kronor, or about $930,000, while Haldane and Kosterlitz share the other half.