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Fun problem solving rewarded with the Nobel Prize in physics

Visiting Fellow at Aalto, Michael Kosterlitz, revealed the properties of exotic matter by not knowing it was impossible.

‘This is just unreal. I came here for a couple of months to do research, but now it seems that my plans for the last month will be changing.'

The red-brick lined walls of Aalto University can be still as a library on any given fall afternoon. However, the life of jovial Research Fellow, Michael Kosterlitz, has become anything but mundane.

‘I could not sleep due to the adrenaline, and now there are 800 emails waiting in my inbox’, says Kosterlitz, who, alongside David Thouless and Duncan Haldane, received the Nobel Prize in physics ‘for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter’.

‘This is just unreal. I came here for a couple of months to do research, but now it seems that my plans for the last month will be changing’, says the beaming new Nobelist working as a Visiting Research Fellow at Aalto with Professor Tapio Ala-Nissilä.

25 years working together

Topology is a branch of mathematics describing the gradual changes of properties, and ‘phase’ refers to the different states of matter. In the 1970s, Kosterlitz and Thouless used topology to prove that although 2D materials that are one atom layer thick are not arranged the same way as 3D materials, at low temperatures, they have a clear organisation that is broken when heated due to the vortex and anti-vortex pairs breaking. Unlike the scientific community believed at that time, 2D materials did have specific phase transitions and could be superconductive.

‘Since I was young and ignorant, I was unaware of many limitations established by conventional wisdom, so I merely saw an interesting, strange physics problem that was fun to solve’, grins Kosterlitz.

Tapio Ala-Nissilä and Michael Kosterlitz met at Brown University.

As the Nobelist saw it, it was only meant to be a theory with no intended application. Later on, exotic, structurally unknown materials have been eagerly studied, and potential applications have been found for example in electronics and materials sciences. Ala-Nissilä, who is hosting Kosterlitz's visit, is researching how to utilize phase transitions for storing heat. At the moment, Kosterlitz and Ala-Nissilä are researching surface structures and developing a new theoretical approach for the solidification of liquid matter.

‘I met Tapio when he was visiting Brown University as a postdoctoral researcher’, reminisces Kosterlitz.

‘We have worked together for 25 years now. Working at Aalto is very different than working at home, where I am focused on theory, whereas here, the focus is more on technological material physics. It has been great to see how many fascinating problems there are with materials research – and that's why I keep coming back here.’

More information:

Centre of Excellence in Computational Nanoscience (comp.aalto.fi)

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