Unbelievable discovery wins chemistry prize for Daniel Shechtman
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Thursday 06 October 2011
An Israeli scientist who was once asked to resign his research post because his discovery of a new class of solid material was too unbelievable has won this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry – for that same discovery.
Daniel Shechtman, 70, of the Technion Institute in Haifa, was working in the United States in 1982 when he observed that the arrangement of atoms in a metal alloy can break the rules of crystallography by forming unrepeating patterns, much like certain irregular mosaics seen in the Arab world.
At the time, the configuration found in these "quasicrystals" was considered impossible because regular patterns were considered essential for a crystal solid to form.
As a result, Dr Schechtman suffered the opprobrium of the scientific establishment, embodied by the US chemist and double-Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, who said: "There is no thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists." But Dr Shechtman showed that the atoms in his crystal were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated.
He eventually forced his fellow scientists to reconsider how they viewed the nature of matter, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the chemistry Nobel.
"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," the academy said.
Professor Ronan McGrath, of the University of Liverpool, said: "Lesser scientists might have put his unusual result to one side and dismissed it as a measurement error."
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