Duncan Haldane

Nobel Prize in Physics


You're probably familiar with the three most common states of matter: solids, liquids and gases. At very high and low temperatures, however, matter can exist in strange states and behave in unexpected ways. Researchers have created super-cooled helium that crawls up the side of a container, and turned some materials into superconductors that conduct electricity without resistance.

In 2016, Professor Duncan Haldane, who is the Sherman Fairchild University Professor of Physics at Princeton University in the United States, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with two other scientists for using a branch of mathematics called topology to demonstrate some of these strange properties that can exist in unusual states of matter.

Their work has made these properties easier to predict and study, and laid the ground for scientists to create materials with novel properties. As the Nobel Prize committee put it: "The laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states... 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."

Professor Haldane was honoured for research that he had begun in the early 1980s. In 1983, he published a controversial scientific paper that challenged conventional wisdom about how magnets behave. He has said: "At the time, it made a big stir because people said it's nonsense, it has to be wrong, but I knew I was right."

Just five years later, in 1988, he discovered that topological quantum fluids can form in thin semiconductor layers even when there is no magnetic field. His theoretical work was validated in an experiment by other scientists in 2014, and has been essential in the development of topological insulators that could be used to make circuitry for as-yet unrealised, superfast quantum computers, one of the holy grails of science.

Over the years, Professor Haldane has investigated strongly-interacting quantum many-body condensed-matter systems, including the entanglement spectrum of quantum states, model wavefunctions for the fractional quantum Hall effect, topological insulators and a subset of the insulators called Chern insulators.

For his contributions to science, Professor Haldane has received numerous honours. Aside from the Nobel Prize, these include the American Physical Society's 1993 Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Prize, which honours outstanding theoretical or experimental work in the field, and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics' 2012 Dirac Medal.

After winning the Nobel Prize, he said in an interview of his research: "Our understanding of the world is the resource from which all technology has sprung. The more you understand things, the more you can manipulate matter and do things you didn't know you could do. So we find the understanding and hand it over to the technologists, and they can work out all kinds of amazing technology."