The 2016 Physics Nobel is for … what?

In 2013, the Nobel prize in Physics was awarded to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for theoretical contributions that explained the origin of mass in subatomic particles: the Higgs boson. Everyone and their mother had likely heard of the Higgs boson by the time of this award, mostly through media exposure/hype of the “Goddamn particle.”

In 2014, the Nobel prize in Physics went to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura for the invention of the blue LED. LEDs are prevalent in technology all around us.

And in 2015, the Nobel prize in Physics was given to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald for showing that neutrinos have mass. And after the erroneous result that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, the idea of a neutrino became semi-general knowledge.

But when the 2016 Nobel prize in Physics was awarded for “topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” I didn’t think that this would resonate with non-physicists. Apparently I am not the only one to think this way, seeing as the Nobel website includes the poll “Have you ever heard of topological materials?”

Luckily, Michael Shirber at the American Physical Society provided a nice overview of the Physics that resulted in David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz receiving the award. These three Nobel winners pioneered using topology as a way to explain physical phenomena by finding a way to compare a real physical problem (like the quantum hall effect) to an “easier” problem with equivalent topology.

In topology, a sphere is the same as a bowl, since you can deform one into the other. However, a bowl and a donut are topologically different because you cannot transform a bowl into a donut without creating a hole. A similar argument can be made with a donut and a figure-8, etc, where all of these topological materials differ by integer numbers of holes.

If you are still interested, the Nobel website has a general description and an advanced description of the award.


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