Strange behaviour of ultra-thin materials wins Nobel Prize

Physics award shared by three US-based scientists David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz


Research into the very strange behaviour of materials when formed into ultra thin layers has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics for three US-based scientists.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Tuesday that David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz would share the prize for physics and the €816,326 that goes with it.

Their work involved studying layers of materials so thin that they became two-dimensional, a condition that in turn creates unusual behaviours in these materials. These “phase changes” can make substances conduct electricity without resistance and form thin magnetic films.

The properties of these fine layers and threads has potential use in a range of advanced technologies such as electronics and quantum computing.

Prof Thouless ( 82) from the University of Washington, Seattle, will receive half the monetary award and the remainder will be shared by Prof Haldane, from Princeton University, and Prof Kosterlitz, from Brown University.

We understand the three phases of matter - solid, liquid, gas - we see around us but these phases give way to others with strange properties once materials are reduced to an atom-thick layer. The scientists used advanced mathematics in an area called topology to study phase changes in these materials.

“This is prize is richly deserved. Through the great breakthroughs they’ve made, Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz took a visionary approach to understanding how topology plays a role in novel materials,” said Prof Nigel Cooper of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

All three of the scientists hail from the UK and left in the brain drain of students to US universities. Thouless and Kosterlitz were from Scotland while Haldane was born in London.