2016 Nobel Prize – Physics

the_nobel_prize_in_physicsThe Nobel Prize for Physics is the one that contains the most well-known names, hence it can be argued is the highlight of the entire endeavour, but perhaps that observation is my personal and wholly subjective bias leaking out?

I’d like to argue no.

It is certainly the most important prize in the field of physics on the planet and that is because selecting the winner is now an extremely rigorous process. The rules demand that the achievement being recognized has been “tested by time”.This often results in a lag between the discovery and the award that can be as long as 20 years or more. Now there is the catch, because to receive the award you must also be breathing long after your contribution, and so some potential winners, who it can be argued should have received it, did not do so because they did not live long enough.

It is perhaps like this because the Nobel committee have been burned in the past. For example, the 1938 award to Fermi was for “his demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation”. Slight problem, Fermi thought he had created transuranic elements but had in fact demonstrated nuclear fission. This was only discovered after he got the prize.

So who has won it in the past?

You should perhaps recognise many, if not most of these names, they are perhaps the top 10 most widely recognised winners …

1.Albert Einstein
2.Niels Bohr
3.Marie Curie
4.James Chadwick
5.J.J. Thomson
6.Erwin Schrödinger
7.Robert A. Millikan
8.Werner Heisenberg
9.Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
10.Max Planck

There are of course other well-known winners as well, such as Guglielmo Marconi (for his work on Radio), Paul Dirac (Atomic Theory), Enrico Fermi (Nuclear Reactions), Wolfgang Pauli (for the aptly named Pauli principle), Richard Phillips Feynman (fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics (QED)), and many many more. What is truly fascinating, and a contrast to all the other Nobel Prize categories, is that many of these names are well-known and that I would argue is why this specific category does actually stand out.

There is however one other notable observation that merits a mention, all the winners, except two, have been men …

While the prize does mark milestones in the history of Physics, we do also need to recognise that it is not the complete story, but instead highlights select individuals. There is a vast array of un-recognised individuals who each make up a part of the entire Physics story, and so while we should applaud the stars, let’s not forget that it was not all done in isolation.

Nobel did set a hard upper limit of 3 per award in his will, so the committee are constrained by that, and that is indeed challenging when much of what happens today is done by large teams as a collective effort.

There are also notable gaps in the award, for example none of the contributors to the discovery of nuclear fission have won the prize for Physics. There have also been several prizes related to the bosonBose–Einstein statistics, and Bose–Einstein condensate, but rather ironically, Satyendra Nath Bose whose work enabled all of that did not win the prize …

“it is unfortunate that pioneering Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose did not win the Nobel Prize for work on quantum physics in the 1920s that provided the foundation of the Bose–Einstein statistics and the theory of the Bose–Einstein condensate – Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of European organization for nuclear research CERN

… so yes, the Nobel Prize for Physics is far from the complete picture.

But still none of that should motivate us to pause and neglect to applaud those that have won.

Here is the official press release this just went out.

Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Physics 2016

4 October 2016

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 with one half to

David J. Thouless
University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

and the other half to

F. Duncan M. Haldane
Princeton University, NJ, USA


J. Michael Kosterlitz
Brown University, Providence, RI, USA

”for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter” 

They revealed the secrets of exotic matter

This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.

The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.

Read more about this year’s prize

Popular Science Background
Pdf 424 kB

Scientific Background
Pdf 800 kB

To read the text you need Acrobat Reader.

Image – Phases of matter (pdf 900 kB)

Image – Phase transition (pdf 622 kB)

Image – Topology (pdf 417 kB)

David J. Thouless, born 1934 in Bearsden, UK. Ph.D. 1958 from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA. Emeritus Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.

F. Duncan M. Haldane, born 1951 in London, UK. Ph.D. 1978 from Cambridge University, UK. Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics at Princeton University, NJ, USA.

J. Michael Kosterlitz, born 1942 in Aberdeen, UK. Ph.D. 1969 from Oxford University, UK. Harrison E. Farnsworth Professor of Physics at Brown University, Providence, RI, USA.

Prize amount: 8 million Swedish krona, with one half to David Thouless and the other half to be shared between Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz.
Further information: http://kva.se and http://nobelprize.org

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