Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Awesome News of the Day

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:

YouTube Link

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.


  1. Digbijoy Nath said...

    truly inspiring and motivating !

  2. Unknown said...

    Data is 'god', interpretations are religions!

  3. Pratik Ray said...

    Yes, this is awesome news indeed, especially for material scientists and metallurgists! I woke up this morning and came to work, only to find everyone super-excited. Soon I found out why - Prof Shechtman had been awarded the Nobel.

    Quite some time back, I had attended his course on Transmission Electron Microscopy, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The subject was interesting, the professor was knowledgeable, and just as importantly willing to discuss any problem/questions that the students brought up.

    It feels great to know that good things also happen to really nice people.

  4. Gautam Menon said...

    I'm very happy about this, since I've been predicting this particular one for a few years, although in physics and not in chemistry. I also thought Penrose (who brought aperiodic tilings to the mathematics/physics world independently, although Islamic architecture had used these motifs many centuries ago) and Mackay (who first computed the diffraction patterns of such tilings as well as suggested that they could be obtained physically - in a sense 'predicting' them ) would have been good joint choices. Of course, theory-wise there would have been several contenders, among them Kramer and Neri, Steinhardt and Levine.

  5. Ajay Harish said...

    Again this goes to show that however logical and unbiased scientists and researchers think they are - there is still a bias in terms of brand names!