IU physicist played early role in history of Nobel Prize-winning theory

A physicist at Indiana University played an important role in the history of the work of two scientists honored by today’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

The winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics are David J. Thouless, Michael Kosterlitz and F. Duncan M. Haldane, who were recognized Oct. 4 for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.

Jorge V. José

Jorge V. José

Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes objects with special geometric properties. Thouless and Kosterlitz’s ideas were first described in 1971 as a novel phase transition of topological objects called vortices under the name Berezinskii-Kosterlitz-Thouless Theory.

A professor of physics in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics, Jorge V. José led theoretical work in the late 1970s that helped spur wider scientific acceptance of BKT theory, which has since been used to advance mathematical methods to study unusual phases of matter such as those found in superconductors, superfluids and ultra-thin magnetic films.

More recently, in recognition for this role in the early history of the theory, José was selected to edit a 40th anniversary book on the subject whose first chapter is authored by Thouless and Kosterlitz.

José’s role in the history of BKT theory began shortly after the first description of the theory. A postdoctoral researcher at the time at Brown University, José approached Leo Kadanoff — his colleague and a world-renowned physicist who previously served as his Ph.D. thesis advisor — with some thoughts on BKT theory, which had started to cause a stir in the world of physics, despite some colleagues who called into question some of the claims of BKT theory about the behavior of matter under extreme conditions.

The germ of that conversation went on to blossom into a new theoretical way to validate many of these predictions of BKT theory.

“We were able to provide a new layer of mathematical proof to some of the BKT ideas that had been previously presented intuitively,” said José, who explained the work they conducted applied certain developments in theoretical physics that had arisen in the years since the original formulation of BKT — such as renormalization and gauge theory – to BKT theory in order to strengthen evidence for its assertions about the ways in which matter behaves under extreme conditions.


José was selected to edit a 40th anniversary book on Berezinskii-Kosterlitz-Touless Theory.

The work — authored by José, Kadanoff and collaborators at Harvard and IBM — was first reported in the journal Physical Review B of the American Physical Society in 1977. Soon after, in 1978, the methods described in that paper played an important role in the design of physical experiments conducted on thin layers of helium at Cornell University.

“That was really the key moment,” José added. “Everything really took off after that. Everyone found new ways to apply the BKT theory to their own areas.”

The experiments constituted the first physical evidence for the phase transitions predicted by BKT theory — and kicked off decades of expansion and elaboration upon the theory that has touched nearly every field of physics. Since its inception, BKT theory has been actively applied to condensed matter physics, high energy physics, atomic physics, nuclear physics, statistical physics and nonlinear systems, among other fields.

Industrial and commercial applications of the BKT theory include everything from the design of next generation electronics and quantum computers to describing the behavior of ultra-cold atomic gases trapped under quasi-two-dimensional conditions.

The third scientist who lent his name to BKT theory was Vadim Berezinskii, who died in 1980.

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