JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty By Timothy Revell The 2016 Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to David Thouless from the University of Washington, Duncan Haldane from Princeton University, and to Michael Kosterlitz from Brown University for “opening the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states”. Their work involved using the mathematical field of topology to look at unusual states of matter, such as superconductors and superfluids. In topology, the goal is to describe shapes and structures by some fundamental characteristics, like the number of holes. So topologically speaking, a mug is the same as a bagel, as they both have one hole, but a pretzel is different because it has two. It’s hoped that their work will give rise to new developments in material science and electronics, including in quantum computing. On hearing the news, Haldane said that he “was very surprised and very gratified” to win the prize. Much of the work took place in the 1970s and 80s, but Haldane said that “it’s only now that lots of tremendous discoveries based on this work are now happening.” In the 1980s, the consensus was that superconductivity – when the electrical resistance of a material is zero – could not occur in thin layers, but Thouless and Kosterlitz showed that was wrong and used topology to explain why. They found that thin conductive layers could actually appear in materials by taking the form of discrete topological steps, where going up one step is like changing from a bagel to a pretzel. Using the same ideas, Duncan Haldane was able to explain the magnetic properties of some materials. Initially, the work “seemed very abstract” said Haldane, but as time went by more and more properties could be explained by topology. “It turned out that many materials people had been looking at for years had these properties,” said Haldane, “they just hadn’t been seen.” There are many different materials governed by the three laureates’ work, including graphene, which is well known for its miraculous properties, but we’re still at the beginning of understanding all of the implications of the topology. “What these discoveries show,” said Haldane, “is that we have a long way to go to discover what’s possible.” More on these topics: