Everyone has a goal and objective in life which they strive for. Bankers, money. Celebrities, fame. Footballers, well, literal goals. However, I believe that we humble scientists rarely set foot in such trivial pursuits. Our aim on this planet is to contribute to the incredible discoveries and ideas of the scientific community, and hopefully have some fun along the way. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll happen to revolutionise the world…
The Nobel Prizes were announced earlier this month, an event which allows the public to gain an insight into the frontier of modern science (amongst other things). Today I will be discussing the discoveries deserved of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and what implications they might have for the future. Perhaps to everyone’s surprise, the Prize was not awarded to LIGO for its detection of gravitational waves, but instead to a trio of British physicists who worked on exotic states of matter back in the 1980s.
David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz used the mathematical field of topology to look at unusual states or phases of matter, such as superconductors or superfluids. First, I should briefly describe what topology is. In maths, and indeed physics, one will often model an object to something that appears familiar to them and is easy to work with, yet still holds the invariant properties of the initial shape. Topology is essentially the field of study which looks at how we can describe these shapes by preserving their fundamental qualities, but getting rid of unnecessary details.
Consider a cinnamon bun. Now, a doughnut. Finally, imagine a freshly-baked pretzel.
All three share the property of being a delicious savoury item of food, although you may consider them to be very different from each other in taste. A topologist, however, would only be interested in looking at how many holes they each have (none, one and three respectively), irrespective of what shape or size they are. No matter how much you distort, twist or bend them they will always the same topological properties. With this mindset, a common mug is considered to be exactly the same as a doughnut because they both only have one hole. I know, mathematicians can get pretty funky.
What these scientists managed to accomplish was finding a novel way of explaining what happens to materials as they approach extreme temperature like absolute zero and the properties that they begin to exhibit. Understanding the physics through a mathematical lens has led to a whole new body of research in materials science. Scientists have been able to develop new materials called ‘topological insulators’, which only conduct electricity on their surface, and they believe these will lead to breakthroughs in electronics and quantum computing. One such conductor which is essentially a one-atom thick layer of tin, known as stanene, will be able to conduct electricity at high temperatures with little resistance. One day, this stanene could replace all the copper components in your standard computer.
Dough-nut forget to like and subscribe. I would also greatly appreciate it if anyone could throw some questions at us, no matter how absurd. What would happen if the Earth was the size of the Sun? How can I live forever? Why are my shoes red? Why is it Thursday today? You get the idea.