British Climber Michael Kosterlitz awarded Nobel Prize in Physics

J. Michael Kosterlitz
© Brown University
Scottish-born physicist and pioneering climber Michael Kosterlitz has been named as one of three recipients of this year's shared Nobel Prize in Physics. Alongside two colleagues - David Thouless and Duncan Haldane - Michael has been awarded a share of the prize 'for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.'

The announcement prompted many climbers to quite correctly make a link between Michael's name and some classic rock routes in the Italian Alps - including the eponymous Fessura Kosterlitz 6a+ on Massi del Sergent in the Orco Valley and the rarely repeated Via degli Inglesi (ED) on Piz Badile, Bregaglia. Amongst numerous impressive ascents in the European Alps and in Yosemite and beyond, Michael also made the first repeat of The American Direct (ED1) on Les Dru in the Mont Blanc Massif.

Michael played an understated yet influential role in developing modern European Alpine climbing by initiating the Nuovo Mattino or 'New Morning' movement in alpinism, in which limiting, old-fashioned values focussing on summits, nationalism and heroics were challenged in favour of creativity and technological advancement in free climbing. In 1979, a fortuitous encounter with Giampiero Motti and Giancarlo Grassi lead to the formation of a pioneering group referred to as il Circo Volante, or il Mucchio Selvaggio - 'the Flying Circus' or 'the Wild Bunch' - who helped pave the way for progression in alpinism.

Those with a keen eye may also have spotted Michael in Hard Rock - one of Ken Wilson's famous triptych of climbing books - on Gormenghast, E1 in Eskdale.

Born in Aberdeen in 1943, Michael received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1969. Following a period as a postdoctoral researcher at Torino University in Italy - in convenient proximity to the Italian Alps - he became a research fellow at Birmingham University in 1970 before beginning work at Brown University in the USA in 1982.

Mike Kosterlitz featured on Gormenghast, HVS, in Ken Wilson's Hard Rock © Ken Wilson
Mike Kosterlitz featured on Gormenghast, HVS, in Ken Wilson's Hard Rock
© Ken Wilson

Speaking to Brown University - where he is a Professor of Physics - via a video conference from Finland yesterday, Michael expressed his surprise upon hearing the news:

'At the moment I feel like I’m in some alternate universe, where reality has taken a long vacation. But everything seems to be real, so I guess I will have to assume that it is and proceed accordingly.'

Michael's father, the biochemist Hans Kosterlitz, is credited as one of the key discoverers of endorphins.

Trivia question: How many British-born Nobel Prize winners were/are also keen climbers or mountaineers?

Watch a video of Michael's video conference with Brown University.

More information about Michael's award on

For more information about Michael, visit Brown University's news report.

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Return to News from October 2016

4 Oct, 2016
Is he also the man after which the famous Valle dell'Orco Kosterlitz-crack was named?
4 Oct, 2016
Yes. He taught a country how to jam :-) Nice jamming problem BTW, just remember to keep clear of the power cable draped near the boulder top.
4 Oct, 2016
Yes, here is a bit of background to his influence on Italian climbing, cut and pasted from a post by Luca a few years back: The Nuovo Mattino had a serious and very much defined British initial link, as the whole really thing began by the chance meeting between Mike Kosterlitz and the "founding fathers" of Nuovo Mattino - Giampiero Motti and Giancarlo Grassi (and, to a lesser extent, Ugo Manera) In 1972, Mike was a student in Torino, at the Polytechnic School. Legend says that one day he dropped in the CAI headquarter in Torino (in Via Monte di Pietà) saying that he was looking for some climbing partner. He was immediately forwarded to Giampiero, who - by chance - was one of the few climber in Turin speaking fluent English. At the time Giampiero Motti was a young instructor at the Gervasutti climbing school (a prestigious institution, but really a "temple" of tradition), and has already a string of important repeats in the Alps, including the first ever solo of the Gervasutti pillar at the Tacul. He came from a well to do family, and was nicknamed "the Prince" because of his extremely good manners, his elegant climbing style, and his interest on oriental philosophies. He was also quite bored and disappointed with the state of Italian climbing, which was very much stuck into a huge post-Bonatti hangover, whose "values" were still those of the 30's - the nationalism, the heroism at all costs, etc. Giampiero had also a complex personality - he was very popular with girls and friends, and extremely intelligent and articulate, but was also haunted by personal issues, who in the end, led to his downfall year later. Speaking English, he had already dived into the extensive collection of British and American climbing literature available at the CAI National Library (in Turin), had had become interested (in fact, a bit obsessed) by the writings of people like Doug Robinson ("“The Climber as Visionary") and generally the type of stuff that was published at the time on "Ascent" and "Mountain". He became convinced that the limits more or less self imposed by the traditional European climbing ethics were all but killing climbing as a creative activity, and that the future was in the Yosemite and British scene. Looking for some place where to replicate that kind of climbing, he had come to find the Orco valley (near Turin) and the immense wall of Balma Fiorant, which he had re-christened "El Caporal" (the reference to the Capitan is obvious). He had already opened (with Grassi and Manera) one route there, but there was something obviously missing. The '72 meeting between Giampiero and Giancarlo with Kosterlitz had enormous implications. Mike was a relatively taciturn person, and not much inclined to brag, but it was obvious he had already climbed a lot of big Alpine classics. Moreover, he wasn't making such a big deal of all this (quite the reverse of the typical attitude of the time), and he had the potential to teach a lot to local climbers. This is how Giancarlo Grassi described Kosterlitz (I'm taking this from Maurizio Oviglia's "Rock Paradise"): "The meeting with Kosterlitz was for me the turning point, the embryo from where it grew a change in my view of the meaning of climbing. Mike was bringing with him, and his climbs a pleasant sport dimension, far from rhetoric-drenched, and devoid of any cliché. He did much to desecrate a lot of our views of the "extremely difficult", but he was aware of his own limits. To see him climbing was a free demonstration that a technical evolution was still possible. He was an exceptional climber, but most important, he was a climbing in a way that was different..." Motti enlisted Kosterlit (and Manera) for another to the Orco Valley at the Torre di Aimonin (near the Caporal), and the result was "Pesce D'Aprile" (April's Fool), the first route in the Italian Alps entirely opened with nuts. Nineteen days later, on the Caporal wall, Motti returned this time with Kosterlitz and Grassi and the result was the "Sole Nascente" line, the first masterpiece of this "new" European climbing, and the symbol of the Nuovo Mattino. EVERYTHING that happened later in Continental Europe - sport climbing, "free" climbing, climbing competitions, it comes from that event.
4 Oct, 2016
Doesn't one of the pics in the original 'Hard Rock' feature him?
4 Oct, 2016
Just checked. Yes, on Gormenghast, with a lot of hair!
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