Nobel Chemistry Prize Awarded To Daniel Shechtman
The Nobel prize for chemistry was awarded to an Israeli scientist whose work was once ridiculed for being out of line with received thinking.
Daniel Shechtman, from the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion), won the entire $1.5 million 2011 Nobel prize for chemistry on Wednesday for discovering different ways in which atoms could be packed together in solid materials. His work has opened the door for experiments in the use of quasicrystals.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Shechtman’s discovery in 1982 initially faced objections from many mainstream scientists and ended up getting him kicked out of his research group.
“However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter,” the academy noted in a statement. “Scientists are currently experimenting with using quasicrystals in different products such as frying pans and diesel engines.”
Noting the mathematically regular but infinitely varied patterns found in Arab and Persian art, the committee said: “Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level.”
“In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular — they follow mathematical rules — but they never repeat themselves,” it added.
Contrary to the previous belief that atoms were packed inside crystals in symmetrical patterns, Shechtman showed that the atoms in a crystal could be packed in a pattern that could not be repeated, the academy said.
Since his early work, others have been able to produce quasicrystals in laboratories and a Swedish company found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, which is now used in products such as razor blades and thin needles made for eye surgery. Scientists are also experimenting with using quasicrystals in coatings for LEDs.
Shechtman first created quasicrystals by rapidly cooling molten metals, such as aluminum and manganese, by squirting the mixture onto a cool surface. Looking at the cooling metals under a microscope, he observed that the new crystal was made up of perfectly ordered, but never repeating, units.
Professor David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, called quasicrystals “quite beautiful.” He added that they are “a fascinating aspect of chemical and material science – crystals that break all the rules of being a crystal at all.”
“I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me,” Shechtman said in a description of his work released by Technion.
For months he tried to persuade his colleagues of his find, but they refused to accept it, and was eventually shunned from the research group. He returned to Israel, where he found one colleague prepared to work with him on further research of quasicrystals. That article too, was first rejected, before finally being published in November 1984, with much criticism from the scientific world.
Double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the findings.
“He would stand on those platforms and declare, ‘Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,’” Shechtman told The Associated Press.
In 1987, friends of Shechtman in France and Japan were able to replicate and verify his discovery with an electron microscope.
The Nobel Prizes are handed out every year on December 10, the anniversary of award founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
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