Israeli chemist wins Nobel for something that shouldn’t exist

By J Brooks Spector 6 October 2011

Nobel Prize for chemistry winner Daniel Shechtman once said of his own discovery, the quasicrystal, “There can be no such structure”. Regardless, there can be. This researcher at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, having found the impossible almost 30 years ago, is the newest recipient of this year’s crop of Nobel Prize winners. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Shechtman is the tenth Israeli or Israeli-born scientist to claim a Nobel Prize. He first created quasicrystals in 1982 by rapidly cooling molten metals like aluminum and manganese and squirting the mixtures onto a much cooler surface. Under magnification, Shechtman saw the resulting structure was made of perfectly ordered, but never precisely repeating, units – an arrangement at odds with all other crystals that consist of regular and precisely repeating arrays of atoms and molecules.

Describing quasicrystals, David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, called them “quite beautiful”, adding that they are a “fascinating aspect of chemical and material science – crystals that break all the rules of being a crystal at all.” The Nobel committee, meanwhile, described quasicrystals as “fascinating mosaics of the Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms”. And Nancy Jackson, president of the American Chemical Society hailed Shechtman’s discovery as “one of these great scientific discoveries that go against the rules. People didn’t think that this kind of crystal existed. They thought it was against the rules of nature”.

Staffan Normark of the Royal Swedish Academy says Shechtman’s discovery was one of those few Nobel Prize-winning achievements that can be dated precisely to a single day. Scientists had heretofore believed all crystals have what is called rotational symmetry: that is, when they were rotated, they were always the same. But, on 8 April 1982, while on a research sabbatical at the US National Bureau of Standards and Technology, Shechtman observed crystals with ten points – pentagonal symmetry – something scientists said was impossible. Schechtman told the media after being notified of his award, “I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me”. In fact, his research unit basically told him to leave and go find another group to work with – so controversial was his research claim.

Shechtman’s scientific journal article on his discovery was finally published in November 1984. But, when it appeared in print, other illustrious scientists criticised it fiercely at scientific conferences. According to Shechtman, double Nobel winner Linus Pauling “would stand on those platforms and declare, ‘Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists’.” Finally, other researchers in France and Japan succeeded in growing crystals large enough for x-rays to repeat and verify what Shechtman first discovered with the electron microscope.

Since Schechtman’s discovery, quasicrystals have been produced in a variety of other laboratories and a Swedish company has found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, the type used in razor blades and the ultra-thin needles used for eye surgery. Scientists are now experimenting with using these quasicrystals in tough coatings for frying pans, heat insulation in engines, and in those ubiquitous LEDs. In 2009, Russian researchers uncovered quasicrystals occurring in nature as well.

Still to come are the prizes for literature and peace, and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Stay tuned for more surprises. What are the odds on a group institutional award for all those social media types who fueled the Arab Spring for the Peace Prize; Amos Oz or Philip Roth for literature; and Nuriel Roubini for Economics? DM

Read more:

  • Nobel Win for Crystal Discovery at the BBC;
  • Israeli Wins Chemistry Nobel for Quasicrystals in the New York Times;
  • Quasicrystals at Wiki;
  • What are quasicrystals? At the jcrystal website;
  • Israel’s Daniel Shechtman wins Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovery of quasicrystals in the Washington Post.