Two former Birmingham scientists awarded Nobel Prize for Physics

Two former University of Birmingham academics, Professor David Thouless and Professor Mike Kosterlitz, have been recognised by the award of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work into the discoveries of the properties of matter.

The award, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm today (Tuesday), is given for decades of work into states of matter that may pave the way for quantum computers and other revolutionary technologies.

Both scientists were academic members in the University’s Department of Mathematical Physics, now the Theoretical Physics Group, in 1973 when they published the seminal work that indicated that matter can have an internal geometry or ‘topology’, which can have measurable effects on their properties.

Topology refers to the properties of materials that are unchanged when an object is stretched, twisted, or altered in some other way. For example, the number of holes in a material remains the same no matter what shape it is bent into. It was this discovery that helped the scientists to explain the behaviour of not only thin slivers of materials, but threads and other structures.

Professor Andy Schofield, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham, said, “The so-called Kosterlitz-Thouless transition was the key to showing that superconductivity could occur in two dimensions. It redefined what we thought was possible in materials.”

“They were able to demonstrate that superconductivity – a phenomenon that underpins much of the modern technological world – was possible in ultra-thin surfaces of materials.”

They will share the prize with Professor Duncan Haldane, now of Princeton University.

Professor Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham added, "As a university we are recognised for our pioneering research and today's announcement adds to our existing count of eight Nobel Prize winners among our alumni and staff - an achievement few other universities across the globe can match.  It also highlights the eminence of Physics at Birmingham, where our academics have been at the forefront of discoveries including the development of radar and the microwave oven, atomic fission chain reactions, as well as recent detections including the Higgs Boson and Gravitational Waves."

Scottish-born David Thouless graduated from Cambridge University in 1955. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Birmingham from 1965 to 1978, where he began his collaboration with Michael Kosterlitz.  Since 1980, he has been Professor of Physics at the University of Washington in Seattle, where his main interests have been in the Quantum Hall effect, in vortices in superfluids, and in other problems related to topological quantum numbers.

Michael Kosterlitz was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, was educated at Cambridge, where he received a BA in 1965 and MA in 1966. He received a D. Phil. from Oxford University in 1969 in high energy physics. He undertook postdoctoral work at Torino University in Italy and came to the University of Birmingham in 1970 as a Research Fellow in high energy physics.  In 1971, he changed fields and collaborated with Professor David Thouless on phase transitions driven by topological defects.

After a period at Cornell University he returned to Birmingham in 1974 as a lecturer and worked on critical phenomena in two and higher dimensions. He left the University in 1982.

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