Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 goes to the revealing of exotic phases of matter

By. Prof. Shaaban Khalil, Director of Center for Fundamental Physics

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded with one half to David Thouless, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Washington, U.S., and the other half to Frederick Duncan Haldane, Professor of Physics at Princeton University, U.S., and John Michael Kostirlitz, Professor of Physics at Brown University, U.S., for their theoretical work on topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter, which became one of the important topics in condensed matter physics. 

Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes shapes and structures by some fundamental characteristics, such as their number of holes. For example; a bun, a donut, and a pretzel are topologically different, while a donut and a mug are topologically equivalent.

This year’s Nobel laureates used concepts from topology to describe electronic properties of matter at cold or condensed states. Their work helped in explaining why some materials have unexpected electrical properties, such as superconductivity under specific conditions like low temperatures, and they also explained how it happens.

Their research results were used in creating magnetic storage devices and opened the door to new researchers that could be used in realizing quantum computing and creating a new generation of electronics and superconductors.

In addition, their work helped in creating the field of topological insulators, which are new materials with surface states that conduct electrons extremely well. These materials are promising for realizing practical quantum computers as well as spintronic devices that are far more powerful than today's devices.    

They also introduced the idea that a system can undergo a phase transition, from a disordered phase to an ordered phase as the temperature is lowered below a critical value. This idea has been proved at very high energy through what is known as the Higgs mechanism, which generates the mass of elementary particles and predicts the existence of the scalar Higgs boson discovered in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider, CERN

The Center for Fundamental Physics at Zewail City of Science and Technology has two research groups, one in high energy physics involved in investigating the Higgs mechanism and phase transitions in the early universe, and the other studies condensed matter physics and works on the electronic and magnetic properties of two-dimensional materials.