6 October 2011

Chemistry Nobel won with controversial quasicrystals

Agence France-Presse
Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman has won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering quasicrystals, an atomic mosaic whose existence was initially ridiculed before overturning theories about solids.
Daniel Shechtman

Israeli Daniel Shechtman from the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa who won the 2011 Nobel Chemistry prize for the discovery of quasicrystals. Credit: AFP PHOTO / ISRAEL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

STOCKHOLM: Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman has won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering quasicrystals, an atomic mosaic whose existence was initially ridiculed before overturning theories about solids.

Shechtman, aged 70, ran into fierce hostility among fellow chemists after making his “extremely controversial”, eureka-like discovery in 1982 that at the time was dismissed as laughable. Today, his work, “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter,” the Nobel jury said.

“It’s a paradigm shift in chemistry. His findings have rewritten the first chapter of textbooks of ordered matter,” said Sven Lidin, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

No such creature

Quasicrystals are crystals whose atomic pattern is highly geometrical yet never repeats. To the untutored eye, they look strikingly similar to the tiled patterns of abstract Islamic art.

Shechtman’s exploit can be pinpointed to 18 April 1982, one of the extremely rare examples when a scientific breakthrough can be dated to a moment in time. During a sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S., he had melted a mix of aluminium and manganese and then rapidly chilled it before studying the outcome at the atomic level under the electron microscope.

Expecting to see disorder, Shechtman instead saw concentric circles, each made of 10 bright dots the same distance from each other. Four or six dots in the circles would have been possible, but absolutely not 10 – a finding that caused him to say out loud in Hebrew, “There can be no such creature”. He wrote in his notebook, “10 Fold???”

Shechtman ridiculed

“It was forbidden by the paradigm, by the rules that the International Union of Crystallographers had created,” Shechtman said in a previous interview with Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa where he is a professor.

“I was ridiculed. I was treated badly by my peers and my colleagues and the head of my laboratory came to me smiling sheepishly, and he put a book on my desk and said ‘Danny, why don’t you read this and see that it is impossible what you are saying?’ I said, ‘I don’t need to read it … I know it’s impossible, but here it is.”

Shechtman’s findings were so controversial that he was ultimately asked to leave his research group at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Went off like a bomb

It was only in November 1984 that Shechtman was able to find a journal – Physical Review Letters – where with a trio of other researchers he could publish his data. “The article went off like a bomb among crystallographers,” the Nobel jury said.

“It questioned the most fundamental truth of their science: that all crystals consist of repeating, periodic patterns.” Shechtman said that the distinction was “really, really wonderful news for me and for my colleagues.” He said the experience of his discovery had taught him “that a good scientist is a humble scientist, somebody who is willing to listen, to muse on signs which are not expected. Because discoveries today are really not expected, if they were expected they would have been discovered a long time ago.” After the ridicule came the vindication. “There are currently thousands of scientists who are researching the topic I opened, and I’m sure that everyone sees in the prize their achievement as well.”

‘Armouring’ materials

Quasicrystals have been found in the lab and some have been discovered to occur naturally in minerals. Their closely-packed structure helps them ‘armour’ materials. Steel quasicrystals, for instance, are used to imbed softer steel in razor blades and ultra-thin needles used in optical surgery.

They are also non-adhesive, which gives them a potential outlet in frying pans and other cooking implements. They are poor conductors of heat, which opens up their use as thermo-electrical materials, in which stored-up heat – from car engines, for instance – is converted into electricity.

The new laureate will receive the 10 million Swedish kronor (US$1.48 million) prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the death of prize creator Alfred Nobel.


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