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Nobel Prize medal gifted to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, by family of alumnus Prof David Thouless





A Nobel Prize medal and diploma has been gifted to Trinity Hall by the family of an alumnus who won it in 2016.

Professor David Thouless was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 60 years after he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge college, and just three years before his death in 2019.

Prof David Thouless' Nobel Medal. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall
Prof David Thouless' Nobel Medal. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall

His widow Margaret and members of his family visited the college last Thursday (30 May) to gift the medal and diploma, which will go on display to inspire future generations of scholars.

The Nobel Prize was awarded “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter”. The work related to different phases of matter - that is, gas, liquid or solid - and how unusual phases such as superconductivity can occur at low temperatures.

The master of Trinity Hall, Mary Hockaday, said: “We are enormously grateful to Margaret Thouless and her family for giving us David’s medal. Trinity Hall is proud to have played its part in setting him on his path and we are honoured to be able to display the medal as a wonderful inspiration to our students today.”

Master Mary Hockaday shows Dr Helen Thouless the display of her father's Nobel Prize. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall
Master Mary Hockaday shows Dr Helen Thouless the display of her father's Nobel Prize. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall

Prof Thouless, an honorary fellow of Trinity Hall, worked in some of the great academic institutions of the world, including Cambridge, Yale and, finally, the University of Washington in Seattle, USA.

Dr Helen Thouless told the college last week that her father had very much enjoyed his time at Trinity Hall, where he had made lifelong friendships.

Prof David Thouless, a Nobel Prize winner and alumnus of Trinity Hall. Picture: Trinity Hall
Prof David Thouless, a Nobel Prize winner and alumnus of Trinity Hall. Picture: Trinity Hall

She added the family wanted the prize to be shared and displayed, and the college seemed the perfect place to do this.

“Thinking about the friends he made and the influence that Trinity Hall had on his life: this is why we wanted to donate it to Trinity Hall,” she said.

It was in the early 1970s that Prof Thouless and others used topology - a branch of mathematics - to describe phase changes at low temperatures in thin layers.

Prof David Thouless' Nobel Medal and Diploma. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall
Prof David Thouless' Nobel Medal and Diploma. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall

He later explained the “quantum Hall effect” - the process through which electrical resistance can “be precisely measured in layers of material a few atoms thick”.

Trinity Hall senior tutor Michael Sutherland, who researches the physics of matter of very low temperatures, said: “By applying elegant ideas from mathematics to real world materials, Prof Thouless’ work offers new perspectives on the behaviour of electrons in crystals and provides foundations for emerging technologies like quantum computing.

Trinity Hall senior tutor Michael Sutherland talks to Margaret Thouless, wife of Nobel Prize winner Prof David Thouless. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall
Trinity Hall senior tutor Michael Sutherland talks to Margaret Thouless, wife of Nobel Prize winner Prof David Thouless. Picture: Eleanor Gunn, Trinity Hall

“It is exciting to have the Nobel Prize here in the college, and we hope that this generous gift inspires future generations of Trinity Hall physicists.”




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