Thors Hans Hansson (R), member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, uses a pretzel to visualize his explanations during a press conference to announce the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on October 4, 2016 (Photo: AFP)
British-born scientists David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for studies on exotic matter that could result in improved materials for electronics or quantum computers.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the three for "theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter."
Topology is the study of properties of objects that aren't changed when the objects are distorted. A doughnut and a coffee cup are equivalent topologically because they each have exactly one hole.
The academy said the laureates' work in the 1970s and '80s opened the door to a previously unknown world where matter takes unusual states or phases.
"Their discoveries have brought about breakthroughs in the theoretical understanding of matter's mysteries and created new perspectives on the development of innovative materials," the academy said.
The judges said there is now hope that "topological materials will be useful for new generations of electronics and superconductors or in future quantum computers," the academy said.
Nobel judges often award discoveries made decades ago to make sure they withstand the test of time.
Thouless, 82, is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. Haldane, 65, is a physics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. Kosterlitz, 73, is a physics professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Speaking by a phone link to a news conference in Stockholm, Haldane said he was "very surprised and very gratified" by the award, adding the laureates stumbled onto the discoveries.
"Most of the big discoveries are really that way," he said. "At least in theoretical things, you never set out to discover something new. You stumble on it and you have the luck to recognize what you've found is something very interesting."
This year's Nobel Prize announcements started Monday with the medicine award going to Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi for discoveries on autophagy, the process by which a cell breaks down and recycles content.
The chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The economics and literature awards will be announced next week.
Each prize has a purse of 8 million kronor ($930,000). The winners also collect a medal and a diploma at the award ceremonies on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.