Nobel Physics Laureates set groundwork for photonic advances

Three scientists from the United States have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical work that is the basis for many advances in optical and photonic technology.

David Thouless of the University of Washington, F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University, and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University, USA were awarded the Nobel Prize on 4 October for work on ‘topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter’.


Their work used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. The research has led to new and exotic phases of matter likely to impact the future of quantum computation, nanosciences and biophysics.

‘The recent advances in photonics 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,’ stated Dr Michal Lipson, Eugene Higgins Professor Electrical Engineering at Columbia University, New York, USA, and The Optical Society’s (OSA) current director.

Dr Lipson, one of the main founders of the field of silicon photonics, added: ‘The research completed by this team has moved us towards novel photonic structures that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, including, for example, the demonstration of the ability to break the reciprocity of light – one of the paradigms of optics.’

Since the researchers began their work in the 1970s and 1980s, there has been tremendous growth in the research area of condensed matter physics giving rise to device applications, such as the development of the semiconductor transistor and laser technology. Several phenomena studied in the context of nanotechnology come under the purview of condensed matter physics. Techniques such as scanning-tunnelling microscopy can be used to control processes at the nanometre scale and have given rise to the study of nanofabrication and magnetic resonance imaging.

Topological phase transitions inspired new research in photonics leading to fundamentally new states of light. Photonic systems have recently been predicted and demonstrated with the ability to transmit light along the edges of the system, but not within the interior of the system and at the same time to transit light that is robust to imperfections. This is in direct analogy to topological insulators in solid-state systems.

Potential practical applications of topological photonics include photonic circuitry that is less dependent on isolators and slow light that is insensitive to disorder. The recent ferment in photonic topological order was highlighted by a 2014 Incubator meeting at The Optical Society in which researchers discussed recent experimental demonstrations and theoretical predictions of such topological photonic systems. The meeting highlighted the power of this family of photonic structures for quantum computing, communications and quantum simulations.

The Optical Society will run a symposium on integrated quantum optics at Frontiers in Optics/Laser Science 2016 from 17 to 21 October in Rochester, New York, USA.

Further information:

2016 Nobel Prize in Physics

The Optical Society

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