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This Year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, Explained with Bagels, Pretzels, and Cinnamon Buns

We spoke to Nobel Committee member Thors Hans Hansson about how pastry holes can help us understand a groundbreaking scientific breakthrough behind this year's Prize for Physics.

by Nick Rose
Oct 5 2016, 10:00pm

Screengrab via Nobel Prize YouTube

Yesterday, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the $1 million Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 to three physicists whose findings were so complex that they had to be explained to the general public (and the press) using bagels, pretzels, and cinnamon buns.

Dr. Thors Hans Hansson is the guy who translated this crazy science into layman's terms, and who gave the now-famous pastry-based presentation. He is also a member of the Nobel Committee who awarded this year's physics prize and a professor in the Theory of Quantum Matter research group at the Condensed Matter and Quantum Optics department at Stockholm University.

Essentially, Hansson is probably one of the few people on Earth who can actually fully understand the findings of the Nobel-winning research, and we spoke to him about how pastry holes can help us grasp a scientific breakthrough in the esoteric realm of topology.

MUNCHIES: What is topology? Thors Hans Hansson: Topology is a branch of mathematics—a pretty abstract branch. But there are certain aspects of topology which are pretty easy to understand, at least the basic concepts like the topological invariant and its applications in physics. That's one thing that I tried to demonstrate yesterday, and I took as an example these things with a number of holes in objects, which is an example of invariant.

Why use pastries to explain what it is? Well, (laughs) we wanted to have something with a different number of holes in them. Then, you starting to think of clay or you think of dough, and then it was pretty natural to come up with this idea, because you had something that was baked, and that makes it a bit fun, also.

What was the significance of holes in your analogy? It's an example of something that doesn't change easily. If you had a lump of clay, you could deform it to look like a bowl or banana or a pear or something; the shape can change, but it still doesn't have a hole. In order to get something that looks like a bagel, you have to really poke a hole in it—you have to do something drastic. Because once you poke the hole, then you can deform it into another shape, so that's the idea.

Why did David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz win? What is the significance of this breakthrough in layman's terms? If you look at the video from the academy page, I did it there and it took, like, seven minutes (laughs). It's very hard to compress it more than that. People are asking for two or three lines, in which case I could say that Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz discovered that were new ways that matter could organize itself at certain temperatures. And in order to understand this way of organization, you need to understand topological concepts.

Is it important for you to use relatable examples like this to explain such advanced findings to the general public? We always try, especially when we're dealing with pretty abstract things like what the Prize was for yesterday. But you cannot always point at something very concrete. A couple of years ago, the Prize was for blue light diodes, and then you can turn on the blue LED lamp and say, "Here is the blue light."

That's a very concrete example. But if it's not, then you have to come up with an analogy like food. It's always important to get something that conveys some part of the truth. But, of course, it can never convey the whole truth, because the truth here is much more complicated. But this analogy has an element of truth.

Are there any practical applications to this finding? There are theoretical papers speculating that this could be used to store and process quantum information. This hasn't be confirmed in the lab yet.

Finally, a personal question: Pretzel, bagel, or cinnamon bunwhich is your favorite? A good bagel. And it should be from New York, I think.

As a Montrealer, I take offense to that, because we think we have the best ones. Actually, I talked to someone else from Montreal who said the same thing. I've never tried a Montreal bagel—I've tried a Toronto bagel and it's not too good, I would say.

I agree, Toronto bagels suck. But I'll definitely give the Montreal bagel a try.

Nice. OK, we have digressed dramatically but thank you for your time and for explaining such important research with food. Thank you, bye.