Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three Brits

(Anthony Grayling pointed out to me that all three recipients, though working in America, were actually born in Britain, so I have corrected the earlier headline characterizing them as “Americans”).

The Nobel Prize organization announced this morning that the Big Prize for Physics has been awarded to three scientists, all born in Britain but working in the U.S.. One recipient got half the prize, and the other two received a quarter each, which I presume means 25% of the dosh rather than 1/4 of the medal!  To wit (I’ve added the pictures below each name):

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 with one half to?

David J. Thouless
University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA


and the other half to

F. Duncan M. Haldane
Princeton University, NJ, USA



J. Michael Kosterlitz
Brown University, Providence, RI, USA


”for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”

And the description of the prize-winning work:

The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

In the 1980s, Thouless was able to explain a previous experiment with very thin electrically conducting layers in which conductance was precisely measured as integer steps. He showed that these integers were topological in their nature. At around the same time, Duncan Haldane discovered how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

We now know of many topological phases, not only in thin layers and threads, but also in ordinary three-dimensional materials. Over the last decade, this area has boosted frontline research in condensed matter physics, not least because of the hope that topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers. Current research is revealing the secrets of matter in the exotic worlds discovered by this year’s Nobel Laureates.

Not a single reader guessed any winner of the Physics Prize in yesterday’s contest (many thought it would go to those who detected gravitational waves, and it eventually will), but you can still win by guessing the winner for literature. The Literature prize is always a tough one, so we’ll see very soon if we have a winner.


  1. Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Slight quibble: While all three are indeed currently associated with US universities they were all born in the UK.

    • George
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      While they are all Brits, they all have been in the US since the 1980s and are all probably US citizens. Citizenship is better than a green card. And this is sad. I have not done in depth research on this, but it seems that most of the Brits being awarded Nobel Prizes in recent years are in the US. That is a sad statement on the UK academy. Not enough funding to keep its very best at home.

      I think the same is true for many other countries. China is making a huge effort to bring some of its Nobelists back to China and retain its young scholars. US support for the sciences has been declining. Republicans have no respect for science and keep cutting funding. What happens when the US is no longer a bastion for the sciences.

      I live near Fermilab. Great place to ride your bike and see bison. What I like the most about it is what it represents. This:

      On April 17, 1969, Robert R. Wilson (founding director of Fermilab) testified in front of Congress’ Joint Committee on Atomic Energy as part of the AEC Authorizing Legislation for FY 1970. Included here is his famed quote about the value of building Fermilab’s first accelerator. His entire testimony from the hearing follows the excerpt.

      SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

      DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

      SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

      DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

      SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

      DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

      It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

      SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.

      DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

      SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

      DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

      In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

      Read Wilson’s entire testimony from the beginning of the hearing below.

      • phoffman56
        Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        Didn’t check, but it sounds like some or all three may have moved to U.S. back in the 70’s. I took a year at U. Manchester then and had a Ph.D. student along with me. His income from a Canadian government scholarship was easily larger than that of Assistant Lecturers there, a position somewhere between what we North Americans call post. docs. and untenured assistant profs. And that was already past the beginning of the economic changes which increased prices (and some salaries) in Britain up to North America’s, eventually. So the brain drain so-called was then hardly surprising.

        On another aspect, from BBC
        ‘”The topological aspects can give the quantum information a robustness against being destroyed by the usual noisy environment,” said Prof Cooper.’,
        which pleased me. At the time, that area (Algebraic Topology) was our specialty, though certainly not any connection with physics.

        • jeremy pereira
          Posted October 4, 2016 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

          I speak as a Brit when I say “who cares what their nationality was or where they worked?” They advanced human knowledge, not British knowledge or American knowledge.

          • phoffman56
            Posted October 4, 2016 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

            Exactly; couldn’t agree more.

            Perhaps your response was really to Coel at the top, who probably also cares little. But we are responding to the news media, and the report by Dr. Coyne, so perhaps those who brought it up can respond to you as to why they did.

            My response on that topic was to do with one powerful factor academics who moved from Europe to North America had. I knew and know many of them. Especially with bringing up a family, living in the upper rather than lower middle classes economically is hardly criticizable.

      • nicky
        Posted October 4, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        “Republicans have no respect for science and keep cutting funding. What happens when the US is no longer a bastion for the sciences.”
        I always wondered what period Trump refers to when he says he wants to make America great again (good debate question) US under Jefferson? Taft? Roosevelt? Clinton? -I guessed the latter, when the US was basically the sole superpower 🙂
        But I’ m digressing, would not the re-promoting and funding of science be a golden way to make America great again?

        • George
          Posted October 4, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          Since WWII, the US president who was the biggest promoter of science and education in general was Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican. To most on the right, he was a RINO (Republican in name only). I happen to think very highly of Ike – despite the Dulles brothers. Ike thought of science and education as a national security issue. But he was also a decent human being. I don’t fault him on civil rights. I don’t think a president can get that far ahead of the country. He did take an important action in 1957 when he sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation.

          Why can’t we have Republicans like DDE again?

          • Posted October 6, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

            Yes, after having read a great deal on this period, many books involving Ike and some by him, I agree. A great leader, nevermind the nametag. I’d happily vote for an Ike now.

      • jimroberts
        Posted October 4, 2016 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        “In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

        Words to honour, and not just in the USA.

        • Posted October 6, 2016 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

          Where’s my damned “Like” button?! 🙂

  2. Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Indeed, they are Brits, Jerry. – MC

    • Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’m embarrassed and have corrected it.

      • Dominic
        Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        Yes well science is international after all. We could equally have said one was Aberdonian etc!

  3. Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I did not guess them. I was just telling who had won. Sorry for the confusion.

  4. Duncan
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Finally a Duncan represented in the list of Nobel Laureates. For far too long have we been associated with hapless monarchs and crappy donuts.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Or Swordmaster and then ghola to Paul Atreides.

  5. Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    They do, all, appear to be Brits.

    Is Duncan Haldane related to JBS Haldane (I’m looking at you, Matthew … 🙂 )?

  6. TJR
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Why not call them British-Americans, in that usual hyphenated US way?

    Or does that usage not exist?

    • BobTerrace
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Would that be topological?

    • Richard Bond
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      So should we refer to James Watson as American-British?

  7. Posted October 4, 2016 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Oh FFS, I was just about to publish my ground-breaking work on theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.

    Denied again. First by Higgs, now by these jokers.

    Not happy. Starting to understand how Wallace felt.

    • Dominic
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      “Starting to understand how Wallace felt” which means you will dedicate your next book to them – as Wallace did to Darwin!

  8. Dave
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    What! You mean that the recent ground-breaking work on the ineffable whiteness of pumpkins lost out?! It’s a fix I tell you!

    • eric
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      The Igs happened last week, and pumpkins were denied there too. But you can always nominate white pumpkin research for next year’s Igs!

      By the way, this year’s Igs had a couple of gems. I particularly liked these:

      REPRODUCTION. The late Ahmed Shafik, for studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers on the sex life of rats, and for conducting similar tests with human males.

      MEDICINE PRIZE [GERMANY] — Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas Münte, Silke Anders, and Andreas Sprenger, for discovering that if you have an itch on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa).

      Though PCC will probably like this one best (I edited for young reader suitability):

      PEACE PRIZE [CANADA, USA] — Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek Koehler, and Jonathan Fugelsang for their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bulls**t”.

  9. Posted October 4, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Interesting that they won for developing a mathematical explanation for physical phenomena, rather than discovering physical phenomena.

    • eric
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Ah, the old theorist vs. experimentalist debate! As a (former) experimentalist, I’m perfectly fine with theorists winning the Nobel prize for explanations of phenomena rather than observations of phenomena. Not 100% of the time, because that would leave out an important part of science. But some of the time? Absolutely. Always giving it to experimentalists would also leave out an important part of science.

    • Kevin
      Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      I have almost no doubt that the explanation of the 2D BKT (Berezinskii–Kosterlitz–Thouless) transitions will lead material science, either directly or indirectly, to experimentally realizable room temperature superconductivity and photocurrent devices that exceed present day solar cell efficiencies.

      Topology is a major (though still incipient) experimental interest that supports electromagnetic and quantum phenomena on macroscopic scales.

  10. chris moffatt
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Well I was completely wrong on the winners of the physics prize. I expect I’ll be equally wrong regarding the literature prize but it would be satisfying if they awarded it to Sirkka Turkka.

  11. Dominic
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    The literature prize has no release date as yet…

  12. Barney
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Not only are all 3 Brits, but all graduated from Cambridge University.

    No apparent relation to JBS Haldane (Wikipedia does show several relations for him: ), but Prof. Kosterlitz’s father was a distinguished biochemist, forced out of Germany in 1934 by the Nazis for being Jewish.

  13. Posted October 4, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    All of my hopes of victory rest on Philip Roth. But an American hasn’t won since 1993 and I don’t think it’ll be this year to change that.

  14. Stephen Barnard
    Posted October 4, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    My prediction for Nobel Prize for Literature:

    Tom Wolfe


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