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Brown’s J. Michael Kosterlitz wins Nobel Prize in Physics

October 4, 2016

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded Brown University Professor J. Michael Kosterlitz the Nobel Prize in Physics “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”

Kosterlitz is the Harrison E. Farnsworth Professor of Physics at Brown, where he joined the faculty in 1982. He shares one half of the Nobel prize with F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University, with the other half of the Nobel going to David J. Thouless of the University of Washington in Seattle.

“This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated in its news release. “They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. 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.”

Kosterlitz is abroad and was not immediately reachable for comment.

"I've never been more proud of my father," said his son, Jonathan Kosterlitz. "He's a man who's always shunned the spotlight, and no one deserves to have the sun shine on him more."

Brown President Christina Paxson congratulated Kosterlitz for being recognized with the world’s highest prize for physics.

“This is such a well deserved honor, and everyone at Brown is thrilled and delighted by this recognition of Professor Kosterlitz and his important body of research and scholarship,” Paxson said.

Kosterlitz is known for his work in condensed matter physics that sorted out an apparently impossible contradiction between theory and experiment. He explained the existence of the superfluid state in thin films of helium.  

Using topology, a branch of mathematics, as a tool in the early 1970s, Kosterlitz and Thouless overturned the exiting theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

“I’m excited by the news that Professor Michael Kosterlitz has received this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics,” said Gang Xiao, chair of the Department of Physics at Brown. “We have anticipated this news for many years. Congratulations to him! Michael’s groundbreaking work in new and exotic phases of matter is not only important in basic research, but will also revolutionize future electronics and materials sciences. Michael has been an inspirational colleague for all of us in the physics department. Many of us are developing the exotic materials that he, Dr. Thouless and Dr. Haldane predicted many years ago.”

Fellow Brown physics faculty member Chung-I Tan said the Nobel Prize is a well-deserved honor for Kosterlitz. "Mike’s contribution is well known within physics community,” Tan said. “He has been a wonderful colleague and a dedicated teacher.

Kosterlitz was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as a fellow in 2007. He was awarded the Onsager Prize by the American Physical Society for that work. He is also a fellow of the American Physical Society and the recipient of a Maxwell Medal from the Institute of Physics.