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David Thouless
UW Professor Emeritus David Thouless is one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for physics. (Credit: Kiloran Howard / Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge)

David Thouless, a British-born professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has been awarded half of this year’s Nobel physics prize for untangling the topological mysteries of superconductors, superfluids and other weird materials.

“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,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in today’s announcement of the award.

The other physicists named as Nobel laureates are Princeton’s Duncan Haldane and Brown University’s Michael Kosterlitz. The Nobel Prize committee allocated half of the $930,000 (8 million Swedish kronor) award to Thouless, with the other half to be shared by Haldane and Kosterlitz.

In work that goes back to the early 1970s, Thouless and Kosterlitz showed that superconductivity – a phenomenon that greatly reduces electrical resistance in materials at cold temperatures, step by step – could occur even in thin layers of material.

Thouless eventually laid out a theory that explained how superconductivity arose as a quantum phase transition, by turning to a field of mathematics known as topology.

Topology looks at surfaces in broad terms, categorized by the number of holes in the surface. During today’s announcement, a member of the prize committee, Thors Hans Hansson, held up a cinnamon bun (no holes), a bagel (one hole) and a fat pretzel (two holes) to demonstrate the difference.

Thouless’ theory linked the stepwise increase in superconductivity to the way that atomic-scale analogs to those holes arise as a conducting material is cooled. The theory explains the quantum Hall effect, which applies not only to superconductors but also to ultra-cold superfluids.

Meanwhile, Haldane showed that topological principles could explain the behavior of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

The scientists’ work helped pioneer the field of condensed matter physics, which focuses on the weird properties of super-cold materials. Writing for the American Institute of Physics’ Inside Science News Service, physicist Yuen Yiu said that topological insulators, superconductors and metals are the “hottest research fields” in condensed matter physics today.

“There is great expectation that the theories developed by the Nobel laureates will guide improvements in electronics and superconductors, as well as futuristic quantum computers, and perhaps something not even conceived yet,” Yiu wrote.

However, Kosterlitz told The Associated Press that the work is still mostly in the theoretical realm.

“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.”

 

Thouless, 82, was born in the Scottish town of Bearsden, earned his Ph.D. at Cornell University and became a professor at the UW in 1980. He won the prestigious Wolf Prize for physics in 1990. Thouless retired in 2003, but retained his emeritus status on the faculty. The university said Thouless recently moved back to Britain with his wife and would not be available for interviews due to medical reasons.

In a statement, UW President Ana Mari Cauce said Thouless’ work was “a perfect example of why curiosity-driven basic science is so vital.”

“Not only did his discoveries open up entirely new fields of research, but they also have had implications for the electronic devices that power our world today and those that may do so in the future,” she said.

Today’s physics announcement in Stockholm follows Monday’s award of the Nobel Prize for medicine to Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi for his research into the process by which cells break down and are recycled. The chemistry prize is to be announced on Wednesday, followed by the Nobel Peace Prize and the awards for economics and literature.

The Nobel Prize was established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, with the first prizes awarded in 1901. In addition to the money, laureates will receive gold medals and certificates during the annual prize ceremonies in December.

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