Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to British scientists who revealed "secrets of exotic matter"

Francesca Washtell
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Behind The Scenes At CERN The European Organisation For Nuclear Research
The acting heads of the Nobel Committee for Physics announce the 2016 winners

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to a trio of British scientists for revealing "the secrets of exotic matter".

David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and John Kosterlitz all made theoretical discoveries using an advanced branch of mathematics known as topology, and "opened the door to an unknown world where matter can assume strange states", the Nobel Prize committee for physics said today.

Scottish-American Thouless was given half of the 8m Swedish krona (£724,000) prize, while fellow British scientists Haldane and Kosterlitz split the other half.

All three work at universities in the US: Thouless is a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, while Haldane is at Princeton University and Kosterlitz is at Brown University.

Read more: Which country has the most Nobel Prize winners?

By using topology in their research, the three laureates studied 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," the committee said in a statement.

"We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials," the committee added.

"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."

What did the three actually discover?

The Nobel prize committee said:

"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."

A member of the Nobel committee helpfully explained it using a cinnamon bun, a bagel and a pretzel soon after the announcement.

The Nobel Prize for chemistry will be announced tomorrow, while on Friday the peace prize winner will be revealed and the award for economic sciences will follow on Monday.

Read more: What makes a Nobel prize winner?

Yesterday, the physiology or medicine prize was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy, a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components.

Last year, the physics award went to two scientists who helped reveal that neutrinos, one of the most enigmatic subatomic particles in our universe, have mass.

Takaaki Kajita from the University of Tokyo in Japan won half the prize, while the other half went to Canadian physicist Arthur McDonald.

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