Haldane, Kosterlitz and Thouless did work at the "tip of a branch that joins the core of physics very close to the trunk"by Philip Ball / October 5, 2016 / Leave a comment
If it weren’t for the fact that my fellow science communicators relish a challenge, I would say that the physics Nobel committee has done them no favours. The work of this year’s laureates—Duncan Haldane, John Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless, all of them British but all now working in the USA—concerns processes called topological phase transitions, and you could spend precious column inches explaining both the adjective and compound noun here without inching much closer at all to an explanation of what they are doing in conjunction or what the subject is all about.
I am duty bound to have a crack at it. But there is, frankly, no point in doing so without first digging down to a deeper stratum. I could end up saying vague things about weird electrical behaviour and offering a probably false promise that some fancy new electronic devices might emerge from it all, and I would only thereby be colluding with the pernicious myth that the value of science lies with its applications. (I call it pernicious not so much because it is what we are often told but because funding criteria increasingly force scientists to maintain the pretense too, which is far worse.)
There’s no point in denying that the field that Haldane, Kosterlitz and Thouless have helped to excavate lies far from everyday experience, and could thereby easily seem as esoteric as the frozen-nitrogen plains of Pluto. But this is the tip of a branch that joins the core of physics very close to the trunk. This trunk is rarely glimpsed, because there is a tendency to portray physics as a process of dissection and reduction whose ultimate quest is the fundamental particles of reality. It is not.
Undoubtedly, the search for new fundamental particles by CERN-scale proton-smashing is vital to the whole enterprise, and discovering fragments such as the celebrated Higgs boson lays bare some of nature’s innermost workings. But the reason it does so is not so much because we have found a new building block, but because these building blocks can embody and illuminate new principles. That is even more the case for the current hope (right now looking a little desperate) that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider will give us a glimpse of so-called supersymmetric particles.