October 5, 2016

Haldane Wins Nobel Prize in Physics


BUSINESS AS USUAL?: F. Duncan Haldane, teaching his first class as a Nobel Laureate, was greeted with loud cheers and applause from his students at his Tuesday session on “Electromagnetism: Principles and Problem Solving.”  Mr. Haldane had received a call at 4:30 that morning from the Royal Swedish Academy, notifying him that he had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. (Photo courtesy of Princeton University Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite)

Princeton University professor F. Duncan Haldane has been awarded the 2016 Nobel prize in Physics for revealing secrets of exotic states of matter, such as superconductivity, discoveries that could lead to new applications in material science and electronics. 

In Tuesday’s announcement of the joint award to Mr. Haldane, along with David J. Thouless of University of Washington and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” the Royal Swedish Academy stated, “This year’s laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states.”

Mr. Haldane, 65, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, was born in London, received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cambridge University UK, and eventually joined the Princeton faculty in 1990 after working at Institut Laue-Langevin in France, the University of Southern California and AT&T Bell Laboratories.

The Swedish Academy’s announcement explained that the three laureates “used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.”

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon before a full lecture hall at Frick Laboratory’s Taylor Auditorium, Mr. Haldane expressed hope that his work with topological material could lead the way to development of extremely powerful quantum computers, “the holy grail.” He described his research as providing “a new way of looking at what quantum mechanics can do.”

The Swedish Academy cited Mr. Haldane’s discovery in the 1980s of “how topological concepts can be used to understand the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials” and the hope that “topological materials could be used in new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers.”

In introducing the Nobel Prize winner at the press conference, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber noted that Mr. Haldane is widely recognized for his discoveries in condensed matter physics, an example of the “truly groundbreaking work that goes on here,” and he welcomed Mr. Haldane as the “newest addition to this extraordinary department’s hall of fame,” which now includes eleven Nobel laureates in physics.

Lyman Page, Physics Department chair, described Mr. Haldane’s “extraordinarily deep insights and mathematical elegance,” and added, ”He is also light-hearted and funny, with an ironic sense of humor—an absolutely wonderful colleague.”

Mr. Page continued, “We all look forward to seeing what this work leads to. We all are indebted and thankful for what you’ve done.”

Phillip Anderson, Princeton physics professor emeritus, 1977 Nobel Laureate and Haldane’s graduate adviser, commented, “Duncan really deserved the prize because of the absolutely fundamental nature of his work. It underlies a lot of what is going on in the field of condensed matter physics recently. It is a very well deserved prize.”

Mr. Anderson, who was cited by Mr. Haldane as “an inspirational teacher” and an important influence, also worked with co-winner David Thouless. “There has been a real explosion of exciting new results [in the area of topological materials],” Mr. Anderson said, “but the fundamentals were laid by Thouless and Haldane.”

The prize of 8 million Swedish krona, approximately $928,000, will go one half to Mr. Thouless, according to the Swedish Academy, and the other half to Mr. Haldane and Mr. Kosterlitz.

In an additional tribute, physics professor B. Andrei Bernevig commented on Mr. Haldane’s powerful influence. “Duncan had a big effect on me in terms of his way of doing physics. He just does physics to enjoy it. There is nothing he enjoys more than to work 14 to 18 hours a day just doing physics. For me, it was a new way to think about doing physics—for nothing else than pure enjoyment.”

Mr. Bernevig went on to describe Mr. Haldane’s thought process. “The way he thinks about things is unlike any other person. He does not come up with things in consecutive order—it is in flashes of brilliance.”