Nobel-Winning Chemist Fought Hard For Acceptance

Oct 5, 2011

If you or your mate shaved this morning with one of those thin-foil electric shavers, that face probably brushed up against a strange form of matter called a quasicrystal. Norelco is unlikely to get a Nobel Prize for that invention, but the man who discovered quasicrystals, Daniel Shechtman, will get this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. And it didn't come easy.

Crystals, like diamonds and quartz, hold their sparkly allure because of the way the atoms inside those rocks line up so neatly.

"For 200 years, we had a pretty firm idea of what a crystal is," says Paul Steinhardt, a professor of physics at Princeton University. "It is a structure in which there is an atom or a group of atoms that repeats with regular spacing between the repeats,"

Like floor tiles, Steinhardt says, there are some obvious rules about what geometry works and doesn't work to build a crystal. Squares and hexagons, sure. But try all you want and you'll never make a bathroom floor out of five-pointed stars.

Now, turn back the clock to April 8, 1982. An Israeli scientist named Daniel Shechtman was working on a U.S. Defense Department-funded project to search for unusual materials at what was then the National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, near Washington D.C. His electron microscope seemingly revealed a crystal built out of one of those impossible shapes.

"And I counted, and there were ten spots. And I said, 'No, cannot be!' And I counted the other way — ten spots. This cannot be!" Shechtman recalls.

Shechtman tells the story in an interview posted on the web by the Technion - Israeli Insitute of Technology. These days Shechtman splits his time between there and the University of Iowa. He was convinced he was onto something big, but he says most people thought he'd simply made a huge blunder, including his lab chief back in Israel.

"That person expelled me from his group," Shechtman says. "He said, 'You are a disgrace to our group, and I cannot bear this disgrace.' And he asked me to leave the group. So I left the group. And he was a good friend of mine."

Rushing To Study Quasicrystals

For two years, Shechtman fought to prove it wasn't a mistake. But he couldn't get his findings published until finally he teamed up with some respected colleagues. At that point, a physics journal rushed it into print.

"Then hell broke loose, because it did interest the community, and many scientists from around the world started to work on these materials," Shechtman says. "And they called me from around the world: 'I have it, I have it, I have it, too!' "

His co-author, John Cahn from the bureau of standards lab, was part of that big rush.

"I dropped whatever else I was working on, and for the next five years, that's all I worked on," Cahn says.

Cahn says they saw 300 papers over the next year from people around the world. About the only place this research wasn't hot was the United States, because the grand old man of chemistry, Linus Pauling, thought it was nonsense and he discouraged anyone from looking into it.

Though Shechtman hadn't really figured out how to make the crystal equivalent of a floor of star-shaped tiles, he did discover another way to make a crystal. It didn't have that completely regular pattern you find in diamonds, but its elements repeated in a more subtle way. And this brings us back to Paul Steinhardt at Princeton.

Back in 1984, he had been calculating unusual ways that atoms could pack together to form crystals and at just that time, someone brought him the Shechtman paper with its bewildering pattern of atoms.

"Sitting on my desk was the pattern we had computed, and the two agreed beautifully. So it was a very exciting moment," Steinhardt says.

Steinhardt coined the term quasicrystal to describe this pattern. These manmade crystals have strange properties, like unusual hardness and slipperiness, so they can be used in shavers and certain non-stick frying pans.

Steinhardt expects this is just the beginning, since they have other properties, such as the ability to turn heat into electricity. And nearly 30 years after Shechtman's Nobel-Prize-winning aha moment, the field is still in its infancy.

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