Lessons from Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career


Duncan Haldane: The Alchemist

Duncane Haldane

2016 Nobel Prize in Physics
"for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter"

  • Duncan Haldane argues that experimental verification is the arbiter of truth.
    • The magnitude of his discovery truly hit him when it was experimentally verified.
    • Xiao-Gang Wen (Chen et al., 2013)
  • For Haldane, the 2016 Nobel Prize began back in the 1980s, and involved a chain reaction of hints, discoveries, and new applications distributed between various colleagues and universities.
    • The citation for his Nobel winning experiment reads as follows: "For theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter, especially in quantum systems confined to two-dimensional surfaces."
      • Is it true, as Feynman said, "If I could explain it to you, it would not be worth a Nobel Prize" - or can one explain it in an accessible way?
        • "I have a quote, which may be a misquote from Feynman, which says that if you can’t explain the Pauli Exclusion Principle or the Spin Statistics Theorem to your grandmother, you don’t understand it properly. Quantum mechanics is this mysterious thing that physicists just take for granted, while philosophers and the general public kind of find it incomprehensible." - Duncan Haldane
    • But quantum mechanics appears to be the way the universe works and it is intimately related to topology.
      • "Topological physics has been incredibly inspiring to young people. In fact, a whole lot of young people got very interested in physics because somehow a very powerful and clean idea like topology from mathematics turned out to allow one to think very constructively about these properties of quantum mechanics. Until this happened, topology was just not there in quantum mechanics."- Duncan Haldane
  • Topology is a branch of mathematics concerned with how properties of objects are preserved when they are stretched, deformed, or twisted.
  • A circle is topologically the same as an oval, for example.
    • An oval is a “stretched” circle, but all the possible positions of a hand on a clock on an oval are also equivalent to those on a circle.
  • Mathematically, topology describes three-dimensional surfaces.
    • Haldane, with the others he shared the Nobel Prize with, pioneered some really hard math that worked well when used to understand unusual phases - or states of matter - beyond the common three.
      • The common three being: gas, liquid, or solid.
    • At extremely low temperatures, weird states occur.
    • What are these weird states?
      • One such state is called superconductivity, which arises when an electrical current passes through an ultra-cooled material with zero resistance.
    • That shift from plain matter to superconductive matter, and similar changes in states - like superfluids - is something Haldane's work could explain.
    • By being able to explain these shifts in states, scientists can now develop new materials that exhibit and exploit these properties, perhaps even paving the way for things as far out there as quantum computers - something Haldane himself used to consider a pure science fiction fantasy.
  • Haldane created much of the work that led to the Nobel Prize over thirty years ago.
  • Was it a foregone conclusion that you would win the Nobel Prize?
    • "I don’t think it was a foregone conclusion. I think this stuff was very interesting for theorists. It was controversial and theorists were interested, but I think what really made this prize possible was the actual development by Charlie Kane who pushed my work in a way that I had not. I’d actually thought of pushing it in that direction too but I didn’t actually do the calculation. I thought about exactly the same generalization, but then I thought once you make it realistic, it won’t work. Charlie Kane told me that they tested it by doing a calculation. I assumed what the calculation would be in advance of doing it and never did it. I assumed there was no point in doing it because it wouldn’t work." - Duncan Haldane
  • It took others looking at Haldane's work to discover that the original models of these phase states were not very practical.
  • Addressing this requires three levels of things to come together:
    • One: there are some deep underlying and abstract principles which are there to be found, but they are very difficult to understand and work with.
    • Two: the toy model intermediary.
      • Actually doing a calculation fully to demonstrate how it all fits together, and maybe see something unexpected that we never understood.
    • And then finally, the third piece is for someone to make a connection to physical materials.
  • "To make a success you need the underlying fundamental, abstract stuff, which is mathematics in this case. The principles, the concrete calculation that really shows it, and then finding out how you actually make a real material. Of course, once real materials were found, then everyone was excited and starting to search for them. Then, after, experimentalists were showing movies of coffee cups changing into doughnuts and back again." - Duncan Haldane
  • How does Haldane see this creative process leading to the beneficence to mankind that Alfred Nobel envisioned?
    • "I think the deepening of the understanding of nature, especially quantum mechanics, is the seed corn for all kinds of future development of technology. I used to be skeptical and think that quantum computers were pushed by snake oil salesmen, but seeing people start to actually get serious about looking at things, how things improve -- just the effect of people getting excited about something and working on it -- I think in this century we will see quantum information technology of some kind... I think getting better at understanding the fundamental principles of how the world works is absolutely a benefit to humanity. Historically, it’s always led to useful things that benefit the man in the street or the woman in the street too, right? I would not bet against it." - Duncan Haldane

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