On the same day the world learned of mastermind Steve Jobs’ death, a remarkable back-story was told by the Royal Academy of Sciences in awarding the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman.
Shechtman’s status as a profound game-changer may not come to mind with the likes of Jobs, Ford, Edison and Einstein, but his discovery 30 years ago of “quasicrystals” – atoms arranged in non-repeating patterns once considered impossible – has “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter.”
According to the Royal Academy, on the morning of April 8, 1982, an image counter to the laws of nature appeared in Dan Shechtman’s electron microscope. In all solid matter, atoms were believed to be packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns that were repeated periodically over and over again. For scientists, this repetition was required in order to obtain a crystal and considered a fundamental truth.
Shechtman’s image, however, showed a different story. Four or six dots in the circles would have been possible, but absolutely not ten. He counted and recounted, then made a notation in his notebook: 10 Fold???
His discovery was extremely controversial. In the course of defending his findings, he was criticized and ridiculed by other scientists. Eventually he was asked to leave his research group. It wasn’t until 1987, when friends of Shechtman’s in France and Japan succeeded in growing crystals large enough for X-rays to verify his discovery, that his finding were accepted.
The medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular – they follow mathematical rules – but they never repeat themselves.
Dan Shechtman’s story is fascinating, but not unique. Throughout the history of science, researchers have been forced to fight established knowledge, “truths” and “laws,” which have often proven to be no more that universal assumptions. Because what we know is limited by our tools of measurement, I applaud not only Shechtman’s discovery and Nobel Prize honor, but his confidence and perseverance to go against the rules and challenge conventional wisdom. This is, after all, the International Year of Chemistry.