Khalil Thirlaway, Naked Scientist
Three Brits take the Nobel Prize in physics for their discoveries on abrupt changes in the properties, or phases, of ultra-thin materials. Khalil Thirlaway reports...
Khalil - This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz for their work on exotic states of matter. All three of these scientists were born in the UK and Cambridge-educated.
In the matter which makes up our world, changes in temperature affect how particles interact. This affects properties like how well they conduct electricity, which tends to get better as they get cooler, because the particles are bumping around less so the electrons can flow more smoothly.
But at extremely low temperatures, close to absolute zero, things get a bit freaky. The effect of heat on the behaviour of the particles shrinks so much that it almost disappears, and the quantum effects, which are normally only visible on a tiny scale, are revealed.
It’s one of these strange phenomena that Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz investigated. In systems close to absolute zero, some substances become what are known as “topological insulators”. This means that they conduct electricity very well along their surfaces, but not at all through the middle. This means that the precise shape of the material can have dramatic effects on its electrical behaviour.
This strange effect is also seen in some very thin materials, ones that are so thin that they can essentially be considered two- or even one-dimensional. For example, a layer of tin one atom thick acts as one of these topological insulators.
These strange and exotic states of matter found in very cold or very thin systems are currently being investigated for potential applications in the development of advanced electronics and quantum computers which could revolutionise our lives, as well as having other far-reaching implications in the worlds of maths and physics.