“‘Topology is destiny,’ he said, and put the drawers on. One leg at a time.” -Neal Stephenson

If you want to understand the Universe, there are two big areas you need to know: Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which governs the gravitational force and the curvature of spacetime, and quantum physics, which governs all the particles, the states of matter and every non-gravitational interaction ever. While many were expecting the Nobel Prize to go to the LIGO collaboration for the groundbreaking first direct detection of gravitational waves, there are a slew of quantum discoveries that are literally changing our world today.

Gravity, governed by Einstein, and everything else (strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions), governed by quantum physics, are the two independent rules known to govern everything in our Universe. Image credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a new field of physics emerged: applying topology to low-temperature, extreme systems. By looking at thin, 2D layers and the topological defects that occurred inside them, new properties of matter appeared. Working out the physics of how these systems worked and the equations that governed them has led to a whole suite of new research, and is leading towards breakthroughs in electronics and quantum computing.

At very low temperatures, topological defects in two-dimensional condensed matter systems often pair together at low temperatures, a phenomenon not seen at higher temperatures. Image credit: © Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Go get the full story on this year’s Nobel Prize in physics: “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”

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