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Israeli wins chemistry Nobel for quasicrystals
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Only later did some scientists go back to some of their own inexplicable findings and realized they had seen quasicrystals but not realized what they had, Jackson said.
“Anytime you have a discovery that changes the conventional wisdom that’s 200 years old, that’s something that’s really remarkable,” said Princeton University physicist Paul J. Steinhardt, who coined the term “quasicrystals” and had been doing theoretical work on them before Shechtman reported finding the real thing.
Steinhardt recalled the day when a fellow scientist showed him Shechtman’s paper in 1984, reporting the kind of result Steinhardt had predicted. “I sort of leapt in the air,” he said.
Staffan Normark, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy, said Shechtman’s discovery was one of the few Nobel Prize-winning achievements that can be dated to a single day.
On April 8, 1982, while on a sabbatical at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. _ now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology _ Shechtman first observed crystals with a shape most scientists considered impossible.
It had to do with the idea that a crystal shape can be rotated by a certain amount and still look the same.
A square contains fourfold symmetry, for example: If you turn it by 90 degrees, a quarter-turn, it still looks the same. For crystals, only certain degrees of such symmetry were thought possible. Shechtman had found a crystal that could be rotated one-fifth of a full turn and still look the same, which was thought to be impossible.
“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 his university.
For months he tried to persuade his colleagues of his find, but they refused to accept it. Finally he was asked to leave his research group, and moved to another one within the National Bureau of Standards, Shechtman said.
He returned to Israel, where he found one colleague prepared to work with him on an article describing the phenomenon. The article was at first rejected, but finally published in November 1984 _ to uproar in the scientific world. Double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the findings.
“He really was a great scientist, but he was wrong. It’s not the first time he was wrong,” Shechtman told reporters Wednesday.
In 1987, friends of Shechtman in France and Japan succeeded in growing crystals large enough for x-rays to repeat and verify what he had discovered with the electron microscope.
“The moment I presented that the community said, ‘OK Dani, now you are talking. Now we understand you, now we accept what you have found,’” Shechtman told reporters.
Cesar Pay Gomez, a structural chemistry expert at Uppsala University in Sweden and an adviser to the prize committee, said research on quasicrystals is ongoing “in the field of thermal-electric applications, where waste heat can be converted to electrical currents or energy.”
The Nobel Prize in chemistry announcement capped this year’s science awards.
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