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Professor Mike Kosterlitz, left, and Professor David Thouless
Professor Thouless (right) with Professor Mike Kosterlitz (left) received honorary degrees from the University of Birmingham in 2017

Professor David Thouless FRS, Physicist and 2016 Nobel Laureate for Physics has died in Cambridge on 6th April 2019 at the age of 84.

He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Birmingham from 1965 until 1978, where he was part of the famous Mathematical Physics group established by Sir Rudolf Peierls.

Professor Andy Schofield, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham, said: "Professor David Thouless was one of the most creative theoretical physicists of his generation. His field was that of condensed matter physics - which uses mathematics to explain the properties of the materials around us.

"He made outstanding contributions to understanding how electrons move in disordered systems, spin-glasses and the quantum Hall effect. It was for his understanding of how topology impacted condensed matter physics that he was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics and in particular for the discovery with Michael Kosterlitz of a new type of phase transition where topology plays the critical role. In that case it is the unbinding of defects (which are characterised by integers from their topology) which marks the transition. This turns out to be crucial for understanding how superconductivity can arise in thin metal films for example.

"The discovery was made during his almost fifteen years working at the University of Birmingham. His ability to see topology in the mathematics of the quantum description of electrons in the quantum Hall effect connected that work to the recent discovery of topological insulators.

"While brilliant in his understanding, he could be gnomic in his explanations. I recall hearing tales from his students and postdocs who went to him when stuck with their research projects receiving pithy one sentence answers which left them perplexed at the time but, after many months work, they would realise that David’s solution was precise and correct."

David’s legacy of work and interest lives on in the Theoretical Physics Research Group within the School of Physics and Astronomy at Birmingham. The recent announcement of an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Topological Design awarded to the University is a direct descendent of his ideas. The CDT will provide an arena where PhD students in a range of disciplines in physics and beyond will research how our understanding, design and exploitation of materials and technology is transformed by the use of topology.