3 UK-born scientists share physics Nobel

Background: Quantum computers, Gravitational waves.

  • Three British-born scientists won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics on Oct 4 for revealing unusual states of matter, leading to advances in electronics and potentially helping work on future quantum computers.
  • David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz (who all now work at US universities) share the prize for their discoveries on abrupt changes in the properties, or phases, of ultra-thin materials.
  • Their research centres on topology, a branch of mathematics involving step-wise changes like making a series of holes in an object.
  • Phases are obvious when matter goes from solid to liquid to gas, but materials can also undergo topological step changes that affect their electrical properties. One example is a superconductor, which at low temperatures conducts electricity without resistance.
  • There had been speculation this year’s prize might be awarded for the first detection of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time first predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein.
  • Finding gravitational waves has been the biggest story in physics this year but the breakthrough (announced by international researchers in February) may have come too late for the Nobel Committee.

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