What never giving up means for you. To not give up when you have fallen down, instead get back up on your feet and start again. During a year-long fellowship at the University of Turin in Italy, John Michael Kosterlitz was working on a particular physics model—a precursor to string theory. It all started when he was about to submit his research to an academic journal that another research group from a different university beat him to it. Such things often make you disheartened. However, it wasn’t over, it happened again, Kosterlitz shifted gears and focused on a different problem. He solved it, and right when he was ready to send in his work, it happened again—an advance copy of the other group’s paper appeared on his desk, describing the solution to his problem.
All of a sudden it hit him that it was time to take a different approach. There was too much competition in the field of high energy physics and he was getting pushed out. Kosterlitz didn’t know it then but the decision to try something new would lead to him sharing the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics with his research partners David J. Thouless and F. Duncan M. Haldane. Sometimes, its okay to change paths, maybe the new path will be better suited for you. Kosterlitz recalled this story before an audience of students, faculty, staff, and alumni as part of the College of Science Distinguished Lecture Series.
For the research that would eventually earn them a Nobel Prize, Kosterlitz, Thouless, and Haldane worked together to explain a puzzling experiment. Picture a crystal with a flat surface covered in a thin film of helium only a couple of atomic layers high. A widely accepted physics theory says that as the crystal’s mass increases, so does the film’s resonant frequency, or the rate at which it moves back and forth on the crystal’s surface. Butat some point, the scientists observed that the trajectory deviated. The helium breaks away and doesn’t move with the crystal anymore. And this was completely unexplained by the accepted theory.
It’s about what you believe in, what you put your faith in Kosterlitz and his colleagues chose observation over rigorous mathematics. Their work on this enigma is what earned them the Nobel Prize for “theoretical discoveries of the topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” or as the concept is now known, the Kosterlitz-Thouless transition. He encouraged many budding scientists at Northeastern University to never lose hope. He wants them to remember his frustrating story as an example of why they should never give up because you never know what’s going to happen.