Physics just got stranger

Warning: pure physics ahead! Errol Kerr discusses how strange matter has won the highly acclaimed and world renound Nobel prize for physics this year

17th October 2016

team of British-born scientists have won 2016’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their studies in strange forms of matter. The studies, pioneered by Duncan Haldane, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thoules, looked into the weird and wonderful realm of phase-transitions, the points where matter transforms outside of the three standard states – solid, liquid and gas.

"In more exotic states, certain matter has incredibly odd effects"

For their work, the three scientists have been awarded an 8 million kronor prize (roughly £730,000), which they shall share between themselves.

In certain extreme environments, matter can exist in more exotic states, such as plasma, or the ultra-dense quantum condensate. In these states, certain matter has incredibly odd effects – such as the materials within superconductors or magnetic film. Up until this point, these effects have been viewed as relatively random; however, the studies performed by Haldane, Kosterlitz and Thoules have proven these to be, in fact, regularities rather than random.

What caught my eye in particular during the awards ceremony was the committee’s explanation of the mathematic field used to study this matter. Known as topology, this field focuses on matter at extremely small scales as well as extremely large scales. To explain this, one member of the committee proceeded to bring out bread-based lunch items in order to discuss the minutiae of different types of matter. If more science-types brought pretzels, bagels and cinnamon buns in paper bags to explain how matter works, perhaps I’d have been a physicist rather than a politics student. I’d also probably have eaten the science.

Whilst in these states, Kosterlitz and Thoules found layers of matter that were so extremely thin they could arguably be described as two-dimensional objects. To make things even more fascinating, Haldane then discovered strings of one-dimensional matter in the most extreme of environments. On top of this, their studies led to the discovery of the Quantum-Hall Effect. This effect, and the studies spearheaded by these British scientists, has provided a precise definition of the Ohm (Ω), the unit used to describe electrical resistance.

"This discovery could also have vast applications in the future"

Not only is this discovery just plain awesome, it could also have vast applications in the future, especially in the field of quantum computing. Concepts developed through topology could arguably improve conductors and transistors, assist in protection of quantum data and assist in the development of Quantum Computing. This discovery has already been looked into by Microsoft’s Station Q project for further application.

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