Princeton scientist shares physics Nobel for study of 'strange' materials

Duncan Haldane, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on exotic phases of matter, at his home in Princeton, N.J. "The main thing is to appreciate that you've stumbled over something," he says.

The Nobel Prize in Physics is being awarded to three British-born scientists, including one at Princeton University, for their study of exotic "topological" phases of matter that may lead to new classes of the energy-efficient materials called superconductors.

Princeton's Duncan Haldane learned early Tuesday that he would be awarded a one-quarter share of the prize, along with Brown University's J. Michael Kosterlitz. The remaining half of the prize goes to David J. Thouless of the University of Washington.

In an interview, Haldane said he knew it was at least a possibility that his name might be in the mix for a Nobel someday, but that the predawn call Tuesday was nevertheless a surprise.

Despite being inundated with phone calls, he taught his regular 11 a.m. class in electromagnetism to 25 graduate physics students. Haldane, who went to Princeton in 1990, said he hoped it would encourage the students to aim high as well.

"That kind of thing is pretty inspirational for graduate students," he said. "Everyone's got a chance. The main thing is to appreciate that you've stumbled over something."

Haldane said his work on what Nobel officials called "strange" matter took a while to catch on in the scientific community.

In the 1980s, others in the field scoffed at his theoretical work on a type of matter called magnetic chains, he recalled. One paper he wrote was rejected several times.

"It got reviews saying it was so obviously in contradiction to the fundamental principles that it had to be nonsense," Haldane said.

"My work was a kind of sleeper," he added in a news release from Princeton. "It was a very theoretical thing. ... It didn't become such a big deal until my work got extended" by other scientists.

Generally, the work of all three winners involved the application of a branch of math called topology. On a macro scale, the field involves the study of shapes that are deemed equivalent if they share the same number of "holes."

The classic example involves a coffee cup and a doughnut. You can imagine morphing from one shape to the other if they were made of clay.  So long as the shape is not torn, the topological property of having one hole is preserved.

In the world of condensed-matter physics, the term topology takes on a more abstract meaning. In Haldane's magnetic chains of atoms, he showed there was a topological distinction between chains in which the atoms have an odd or an even number of electrons, said Charles Kane, a University of Pennsylvania physics professor.


Haldane's work with the chains was not the sort of discovery that had an immediate practical application. Some of the research by the other two Nobel winners, Kosterlitz and Thouless, is more directly related to superconductors — materials through which electricity can flow without resistance.

But the work of all three contributed greatly to our fundamental understanding of states of matter, Kane said.

"We really have gratitude to these giants of theoretical physics," Kane said.

That feeling of respect is apparently mutual. In an afternoon news conference, Haldane gave a shout-out to  Kane and Penn colleague Eugene Mele for their theoretical work on materials called topological insulators. That research, which may lead to new classes of advanced computers, was honored last year by the Franklin Institute.

Princeton officials who introduced Haldane at the news conference said he was known for his ironic sense of humor, and the audience soon saw it in action.

Asked what he would do with his share of the prize money, about $230,000, he said: "I'll give a lot of it to the IRS."

He ackowledged that his research was difficult to understand for the uninitiated, and he praised the National Science Foundation for supporting work purely because it is "interesting," regardless of whether the applications are readily apparent.

"You can't get up in the morning and say, `I'm going to discover something extremely useful,' " he said.

Haldane, Kosterlitz, and Thouless are to receive their awards in a Dec. 10 ceremony in Sweden.