By Patrick Lannin and Veronica Ek
STOCKHOLM Oct 5 An Israeli scientist who
suffered years of ridicule and even lost a research post for
claiming to have found an entirely new class of solid material
was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for his
discovery of quasicrystals.
Three decades after Daniel Shechtman looked with an electron
microscope at a metal alloy and saw a pattern familiar in
Islamic art but then unknown at a molecular level, those
non-stick, rust-free, heat-resistant quasicrystals are finding
their way into tools from LEDs to engines and frying pans.
Shechtman, 70, from Israel's Technion institute in Haifa,
was working in the United States in 1982 when he observed atoms
in a crystal he had made form a five-sided pattern that did not
repeat itself, defying received wisdom that they must create
repetitious patterns, like triangles, squares or hexagons.
"People just laughed at me," Shechtman recalled in an
interview this year with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting how
Linus Pauling, a colossus of science and double Nobel laureate,
mounted a frightening "crusade" against him, saying: "There is
no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."
After telling Shechtman to go back and read the textbook,
the head of his research group asked him to leave for "bringing
disgrace" on the team. "I felt rejected," Shachtman remembered.
"His discovery was extremely controversial," said the Nobel
Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which
granted him the 10-million crown ($1.5-million) award.
"However, his battle eventually forced scientists to
reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.
"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."
A PRIZE FOR THOUSANDS
On Wednesday, Shachtman said he was "excited" but at pains
to praise fellow scientists, many of whom once doubted him.
"I am a spearhead of a large scientific community, for
people who study quasiperiodic materials, nicknamed
quasicrystals ... Nobel is not given to ... thousands of them,
but to a representative ... I feel great for them, and for me."
Nancy Jackson, the president of the American Chemical
Society (ACS), called it "a great work of discovery".
Scientists had previously thought solid matter had only two
states -- crystalline, like diamonds, where atoms are arranged
in rigid rows, and amorphous, like metals, with no particular
order. Quasicrystalline matter offers a third possibility and
opens the door to new kinds of materials for use in industry.
Hundreds of quasicrystals have been synthesised in
laboratories and, two years ago, scientists reported the first
naturally occurring find in quasicrystals in a mineral sample
from Russia containing aluminum, copper and iron.
David Phillips, president of Britain's Royal Society of
Chemistry, said called them "quite beautiful" and said they
"break all the rules of being a crystal at all".
"You can normally explain in simple terms where in a crystal
each atom sits -- they are very symmetrical," he said. "With
quasicrystals, that symmetry is broken: there are regular
patterns in the structure, but never repeating."
An intriguing feature of such patterns, also found in Arab
mosaics, is that the mathematical constant known as the Greek
letter tau, or the "golden ratio", occurs over and over again.
Underlying it is a sequence worked out by Fibonacci in the 13th
century, where each number is the sum of the preceding two.
Quasicrystals are very hard and are also poor conductors of
heat and electricity, giving uses as thermoelectric materials,
which convert heat into electricity. They also have non-stick
surfaces, handy for frying pans, and appear in energy-saving
light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and heat insulation in engines.
Astrid Graslund, secretary for the Nobel Committee for
chemistry, said: "The practical applications are as of now, not
so many. But the material has unexpected properties. It is very
strong, it has hardly any friction on the surface. It doesn't
want to react with anything -- they cannot ... become rusty.
"But ... it is more a conceptual insight -- that these
materials exist and we need to re-write all textbooks about
crystals -- it's a shift of the paradigm, which I think is most
(Additional reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Ben
Hirschler in London, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Dan
Williams, Ori Lewis and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by
Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jon Boyle)