Nobel prize winner to speak

Michael Kosterlitz, Nobel Prize Winner and professor of physics at Brown University, will give a lecture and seminar Oct. 26-27.

Physicist to share discovery related to matter behavior in exotic states Oct. 26 at UWL

Nobel Prize Winner Michael Kosterlitz says his best work in physics came early in life. As a postdoctoral fellow at Birmingham University in the early 1970s, he wasn’t looking to win any awards or solve fundamental questions about how the world works. He was just entertaining a new theoretical problem related to two dimensional matter posed by fellow physicist, David Thouless.

When this matter is exposed to extreme high or low temperatures, it behaves in strange ways that physicists at the time couldn’t explain. For instance, at extreme low temperatures superconductivity occurs where electricity can flow without resistance. When Thouless presented this unusual behavior, Kosterlitz was just beginning to study two dimensional matter. Concepts like superconductivity were foreign to him, as were the standard techniques applied to solve such problems. But this, he says, was to his advantage.

“Between us we had no preconceived ideas. And we worked well together,” says Kosterlitz. “We managed to come up with a solution to an interesting theoretical problem.”

That solution, decades later, led to earning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. Kosterlitz and Thouless received the award with Ducan Halddane of Princeton University.

Kosterlitz, now a professor of physics at Brown University, will give a public lecture and physics seminar related to his groundbreaking work at UW-La Crosse Oct. 26-27. The public lecture is at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, in Skogen Auditorium A., 1400 Centennial Hall. A reception begins at 4:30 p.m. in Cameron Hall of Nations, Centennial Hall. The physics seminar starts at 3:20 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27, in Skogen Auditorium A., 1400 Centennial Hall.

Both events are free and open to the public. Free parking will be available in commuter lot C-2 (near the stadium) for Thursday’s lecture only. Groups of five or more must make special arrangements with the UWL Foundation.

Kosterlitz and Thouless developed new theories which overturned current thought that superconductivity or superfluidity 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.

Although seemingly abstract, this work opened the door for discoveries of new and exotic phases of matter with potential future applications in materials science, electronics and computing.

Kosterlitz’ advice to any students starting in the sciences is to enjoy the process. It was his interest in this particular physics topic he was studying that led to his discovery. “If you’re not having fun with what you are doing, it’s not worth doing,” he says.

About the lecture series

Kosterlitz is the 18th Nobel Prize Winner in physics to come to UWL as part of UWL’s Distinguished Lecture Series in Physics. The series is funded by private gifts to the UW-La Crosse Foundation and through support from the Department of Physics, College of Science and Health and Wettstein’s. The series annually brings a physicist to La Crosse whose significant accomplishments and communication skills can inspire and enrich the careers of students, faculty and community.

More on Kosterlitz prize-winning work from

In the 1980s, David 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.

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