Physics Nobel Goes To 3 Scientists For Insights Into Matter's Behavior

Oct 4, 2016
Originally published on October 4, 2016 8:49 am
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Nobel Prize in physics this morning has been awarded to three scientists. They won for their work exploring new phases of matter. Joining us to talk about the winners is NPR's science editor, Geoff Brumfiel. Good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with these researchers. Who are they?

BRUMFIEL: They are David Thouless of the University of Washington Seattle, Duncan Haldane of Princeton University and Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University. And they won for, as you said, work on unusual phases of matter, and specifically - I'm going to have to read this out loud; I had to write it down - for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.

MONTAGNE: I see why you wrote it down - quite a mouthful.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter). Yeah, yeah, it's really something. But let's just break it down. So topological phases of matter - we'll work back-to-front here. Matter is just, you know, stuff. It's, like, the table here in the studio. It's made of atoms. And phases you learned in school. That's just liquid, solid, gas.

That's the way the matter is organized. But then it turns out that there are also some very unusual phases out there that we don't learn about. And specifically, these topological phases are cases where matter is - or there are often cases where matter is squashed down into two dimensions. So rather than having a block of atoms, you have a sheet - a two-dimensional sheet of, say, electrons.

And that can lead to some very unusual properties. And so these three winners did a lot of theoretical work back in the 1970s. It was all just sort of on paper about how these sort of flat sheets of matter might behave. And that's why they won.

MONTAGNE: And why, though, now, having done that work so long ago?

BRUMFIEL: Well, that's a good question. I mean, it often takes a long time for the Nobel committee to recognize work, but I think there's something else going on here. So basically what happened was, first of all, in the '70s and '80s, you know, this was all theoretical.

But physicists started seeing, you know, some of this stuff in their experiments, and they'd refer to these guys' work, and they'd use it to explain things. And then we had the computer revolution kind of happening in parallel. And so, all of a sudden, people were able to make some of these two-dimensional sheets of material.

A few years ago, there was a Nobel Prize awarded for graphene, which is just a sheet of carbon. And so, as we've become more sophisticated, all of a sudden, you know, we're starting to apply this more and more. And there's hopes that these materials could be used for things like quantum computers, which could be able to do certain calculations better than regular computers.

I think there's a feeling we're on the cusp of something maybe very big with topological materials, and that's why people are excited about it now.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, Geoff, we have - we've got a little time here, so why don't you talk to us about the fact that everyone thought there was another topic that - that would likely be the winner, right?

BRUMFIEL: Yes. So they contacted one of the laureates today. Even he sounded a little surprised that he'd won this year. And that's because this was the year they detected gravitational waves - waves in the fabric of space and time. Einstein predicted those waves a hundred years ago.

It took an entire century to see them. So it was a very, very big discovery. But, you know, I mean, it took a hundred years. They can wait another year for the Nobel Prize. They're almost certain to get one at some point.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter). OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.