Dan Shechtman Wins Nobel
Dan Shechtman, professor of materials science at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Iowa State University, spent years trying to convince the scientific community that his 1982 identification of alloys with crystal-like electron structures was not a huge blunder.
Almost 20 years later, his efforts were vindicated.
Schechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of quasicrystals, materials in which atoms are observed in defined and non-repeating patterns.
These crystal structures exhibit uncommon properties including unusual hardness, brittleness, and slipperiness which allow them to be used in a number of items such as electric shavers.
According to Department of Chemistry Chair Professor Eric D. Jacobsen, the award for the discovery of quasicrystals was not entirely expected.
“Prior to [yesterday], Shechtman was not among the world’s more widely known chemists,” he said.
Shechtman discovered the crystal structures on April 8, 1982, while working at the National Bureau of Standards on a Defense Department-funded project which aimed to identify unusual materials, according to the announcement from the Nobel committee.
He conducted an X-ray diffraction study on an alloy mixture of aluminum and manganese, expecting to observe general randomness in the arrangement of the electrons, Shechtman said in an interview posted by Technicon-Israeli Institute of Technology. The study instead revealed a regular but non-repeating pattern of spots resembling those made by crystals but with a five-fold rotational symmetry.
The discovery, if true, flew in the face of generally accepted notions on the very nature of matter. According to a press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, “such a pattern was [then] considered just as impossible as creating a [soccer ball] using only six-cornered polygons, when a sphere needs both five- and six-cornered polygons.”
The discovery was met with great skepticism worldwide, Shechtman said in the online interview. Many scientists, including previous Nobel winner Linus C. Pauling, offered alternative suggestions for the observed diffraction patterns with less challenging implications on material nature. Part of the controversy stemmed from the fact that the discovery had been made by electron microscopy, then not a widely accepted tool in the field of crystallography.
Shechtman describes his fight to dispel the notion that he had simply made a mistake. In the same interview, he admitted even getting expelled from his research group in Israel in light of his claims.
Almost two years after his initial discovery, Shechtman’s findings were published in a physics journal. Soon afterwards, a large number of scientists worldwide began looking into the nature of quasicrystals, according to the Nobel announcement. The structure of quasicrystals has been related to multiple mathematical relationships, including the golden ratio.
Quasicrystals have since been produced by multiple scientists and found naturally in a number of other materials. Much research is now being done to use quasicrystals in products such as non-stick frying pans.
With the honor, Shechtman was awarded 10 million Swedish kronor, an amount roughly equivalent to $1.4 million.
“You know, it taught me that a good scientist is a humble scientist,” said Shechtman in an interview with Nobel media following the announcement of his award, ”somebody who is willing to listen to news in science which are not expected.”
—Staff writer Akua F. Abu can be reached at email@example.com
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTIONS: October 10, 2011
The Oct. 6 article "Dan Shechtman Wins Nobel" incorrectly stated that Shechtman was a professor at the University of Iowa. He is, in fact, a professor at Iowa State University.