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Three British scientists behind groundbreaking research into exotic matter in the quantum world were on Tuesday jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

Awarding the prize in two parts, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences handed one half to David J. Thouless of the University of Washington and the second half to F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University.

The scientists had “opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states,” the Nobel committee said in its citation.

“They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films,” it added.

“Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter,” it added. “Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics.”

The committee said 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,” the committee said.

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.

The prize amount of 8 million Swedish krona ($937,000) will be shared between Thouless, 82, and Haldane, 65, and Kosterlitz, 74.

Last year, the Nobel Prize in physics went to Japan’s Takaaki Kajita and Canada’s Arthur McDonald for determining that neutrinos have mass, a key piece of the puzzle in understanding the cosmos. Scientists Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura of the U.S. also won in 2014 for their work on LED lamps.

The physics prize is the second of the Nobels to be awarded, after the medicine prize was on Monday awarded to Japanese microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi. On Wednesday, the chemistry prize will be announced, to be followed by the peace prize Friday.

Information from AFP-JIJI added

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