A Nobel Prize is certainly the pinnacle of recognition for any scientist, and their life’s work, but they are by no means easy to obtain. When Dan Shechtman took on the world with his innovative quasicrystal theory in the 1980s, he was ridiculed. However, after winning the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, he certainly had the last laugh.
The saga started back in the early 1980s, when Shechtman was working at the US National Bureau of Standards; there he made an astonishing discovery whilst studying an aluminium compound. Up until that point, it was believed that all crystalline matter (from the salt on your chips to anything comprising of metal) was composed of identical, repeating structures, which fitted together perfectly, like tiles on a floor. The only shapes that can pack together in such a way are triangles, squares and hexagons, with three, four and six-fold symmetry respectively. The rule was that five-fold symmetry was impossible. The problem for Dan Shechtman was that he had just discovered five-fold symmetry in a perfectly legitimate crystal; the feat that awaited him was convincing the crowds of highly respected scientists that he was right.
Initially, this process did not go well for Shechtman – he lost his job, had his findings rejected by a well respected journal and failed to find consolation in many of his friends. A couple of years later, his paper was eventually published and his argument started to gain momentum. Eventually, the underlying paradigm in crystallography was even rewritten to include these new structures. However, one of the most eminent scientists of the 20th Century, Linus Pauling, steadfastly refused to convert his beliefs after the rest of the scientific community had. The resistance that faced Dan Shechtman really was immense.
Today, much research surrounds quasicrystals, and they have been exploited industrially in several ways. For example, quasicrystals can be used in the manufacturing of super-strong steel, for use in surgical implements. However, many details remain to be understood; scientists predict that with new research, including from Shechtman’s research group, more exciting uses will be found for quasicrystals. Another ongoing debate concerning the area is whether quasicrystals are found naturally, or are solely synthetic materials. A rock has been discovered containing a quasicrystalline compound, but it is unknown whether it originated on Earth, or arrived as a meteorite. Evidently, this young area of materials science is evolving at a fast pace, but still conceals a multitude of amazing discoveries.
Of course, those who initially opposed the existence of quasicrystals were merely regurgitating the theory that they themselves were taught. Shechtman sagely says, “If you’re a scientist that believes in your results, then fight for them.” I am sure he would agree that the 29 year fight was well worth it!
Image 1 – Holger Motzkau
Image 2 – J.W. Evans