Prof. Dan Shechtman has won this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The news is all the more awesome because Prof. Shechtman is a fellow member of the tribe in the land of Materials Science and Engineering -- see his official web page at Technion.
Prof. Shechtman's Prize is for his pioneering work on quasicrystals (in aluminum-manganese alloys) which showed a five-fold rotation symmetry -- the kind of symmetry that was (then) forbidden in 'normal' crystals. I can go on and on, but there's nothing better than a video in which Prof. Shechtman himself explains his work:
One of the interesting bits in the story is the strong, intense opposition to the idea of quasicrystals from Linus Pauling -- a Chemistry Nobel Laureate, and a mega-giant in chemistry. Prof. Shechtman needed to overcome the skepticism (and sometimes, open hostility) of many, many scientific colleagues who just couldn't believe his results and their radical implications. In one of his talks here at IISc, I remember him talking about scientists who said, basically, "Here's what Pauling says, and here's what Shechtman says. Now, who would you believe?" And many of those who said this were chemists who were sure that Pauling could never go wrong.
I think it is absolutely wonderful that it is the Chemistry Prize that has gone to Prof. Shechtman.
Congratulations to Prof. Shechtman!
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Update: Way back in 2005, I wrote a post about three mini-revolutions that shook materials science / condensed matter physics / solid state chemistry in the 1980s. The discovery of quasicrystals was one of them, with the other two being high Tc superconductivity and C-60 (Buckminsterfullerenes, fullerenes or buckyballs). While C60 won the 1997 Chemistry Prize, the work that laid the foundation for the discovery of high Tc superconductivity won the 1987 Physics Prize.
The discovery of quasicrystals had to wait a while for the Prize, but the timing is exquisite -- it won it in the International Year of Chemistry!
Update 2: The Information for the Public issued by the Nobel Foundation does a good job of summarizing some of the history behind the discovery of quasicrystals, and ends with "an important lesson for scientists." Some excerpts:
When Shechtman told scientists about his discovery, he was faced with complete opposition, and some colleagues even resorted to ridicule. Many claimed that what he had observed was in fact a twin crystal. The head of the laboratory gave him a textbook of crystallography and suggested he should read it. Shechtman, of course, already knew what it said but trusted his experiments more than the textbook. All the commotion finally led his boss to ask him to leave the research group, as Schechtman himself recalled later. The situation had become too embarrassing. [...]
[Immediately after Shechtman published his work] the discovery now reached a wider audience, and Daniel Shechtman became the target of even more criticism. At the same time, however, crystallographers around the world had a moment of déjà vu. Many of them had obtained similar diffraction patterns during analyses of other materials, but had interpreted those patterns as evidence of twin crystals. Now they started digging around in their drawers for old laboratory notes, and pretty soon other crystals began to appear with seemingly impossible patterns, such as eight- and twelvefold symmetries. [...]
An important lesson for science
Daniel Shechtman’s story is by no means unique. Over and over again in the history of science, researchers have been forced to do battle with established “truths”, which in hindsight have proven to be no more than mere assumptions. One of the fiercest critics of Daniel Shechtman and his quasicrystals was Linus Pauling, himself a Nobel Laureate on two occasions. This clearly shows that even our greatest scientists are not immune to getting stuck in convention. Keeping an open mind and daring to question established knowledge may in fact be a scientist’s most important character traits.