Topological-phase pioneers garner Nobel Prize, photonics has benefited

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics has gone to three scientists who opened new theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.

The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics has gone to three scientists who opened new theoretical perspectives in thinking about basic states of matter. The prize was divided between David J. Thouless, who received half of the award, and F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitz, who split the other half, for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”

Such work in solid-state materials has in the past several years found analogs in photonics, such as work at the Joint Quantum Institute of the University of Maryland and elsewhere demonstrating systems that can transmit light on the edges but have a photonic band gap in bulk. The recent ferment in photonic topological order was highlighted by a 2014 Incubator meeting at The Optical Society in which researchers discussed the prospects for such topological photonic systems in areas such as quantum computing and quantum simulation.

On a more fundamental level, the recent advances building on the laureates’ theoretical work from three decades ago have, in a very real sense, been enabled in part by optical and photonic technology—in particular by the ability to laser-cool and trap low-temperature atoms in optical lattices, responsible in itself for a number of previous Nobel physics prizes.
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