A physicist walks into a room holding a pretzel, a bagel, and a cinnamon bun. “For us, these are very different. This ones sweet, this ones salty, they have different shapes,” says the physicist. “But, if youre a topologist theres only one thing thats really interesting: This thing has no hole, the bagel has one hole, the pretzel has two holes.” Haha, get it!?
Sigh. The pastry thing was Nobel committee member Thors Hans Hansson’s best attempt to explain topology, the core concept behind the winner of this year’s prize for physics, “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” Basically this has to do with a bunch of theoretical work that looked at how you make superconductors, superfluids, and super-thin magnets by super-chilling or super-condensing matter. This super-theoretical work is the foundation for super-new materials that might one day replace wires and parts in future supercomputers.
Three scientists split the award: David Thouless of the University of Washington; Duncan Haldane of Princeton University; and Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University. Thouless will get half of of the $937,000 prize money, and Haldane and Kosterlitz will split the other half.
These three did their Nobel-worthy theoretical work in the 1970s and ’80s. Kosterlitz and Thouless’ work came first, when they provedcontrary to the prevailing understandingthat super-thin layers of matter could act as superconductors or superfluids. They also figured out why the temperature of superconducting materials matters: These materials changed phase slightly when warmed up. Haldane’s contribution also came in the ’80s, using topology to describe properties of tiny magnets. Thouless also did some additional Nobel-worthy work, around the same time as Haldane, by figuring out that electricity passed through thin, superconducting materials in precise integer steps.
Topology has grown into a robust sub-discipline in physics, where scientists use these concepts to develop new types of materials for computing, electrical transmission, and battery storage. Someday, materials based on these winners’ theoretical work might power Siri’s quantum-brained sass.
And to the Nobel committee: Maybe next time you bring a bunch of pastries on stage, have a better punch line. Also, how about an award for bagels? Because, come on, somebody deserves an award for bagels.