(The Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
corrects laureate's first name to Dan from Daniel)
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 Dan 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," Shechtman 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.
"Dan Shechtman had to fight a fierce battle against
established science ... His battle eventually forced scientists
to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.
"In quasicrystals, we find the fascinating mosaics of the
Arabic world reproduced at the level of atoms: regular patterns
that never repeat themselves."
A PRIZE FOR THOUSANDS
On Wednesday, Shechtman said he was "excited" but at pains
to praise fellow scientists, many of whom once doubted him.
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.
Sometimes referred to as Shechtmanite in the discoverer's
honour, hundreds of quasicrystals have been synthesised in
laboratories. Two years ago, scientists reported the first
naturally occurring find of quasicrystals in eastern Russia.
David Phillips, president of Britain's Royal Society of
Chemistry, called them "quite beautiful". Interlocking arrays of
stars, circles and floral shapes are typical.
"You can normally explain in simple terms where in a crystal
each atom sits - they are very symmetrical," Phillips 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.
Living things, including flowers, fruit and shellfish, also
demonstrate similar arrangements, which scientists associate
with the efficient packing of materials into growing organisms.
Quasicrystals are very hard and are poor conductors of heat
and electricity, offering 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 important."
BATTLE OF BELIEF
Since Galileo was mocked by established scientists and
persecuted by the church in the 16th century for observing that
the Earth moved round the Sun rather than the reverse,
overturning accepted wisdom has never been easy, as several of
this year's Nobel prizewinners in science have shown.
Research that was largely ignored for years secured the
medicine prize for the late Ralph Steinman and the astounding
finding that the universe's expansion was speeding up not
slowing down meant the physics prize for its joint discoverers.
But in a year when science is in a froth over whether
particles may have been fired from Geneva to Italy faster than
the speed of light -- apparently defying Einstein -- few in the
modern age have had to battle disbelief as hard as Shechtman.
"He dealt with the scepticism in a very scientific and
gentlemanly manner and answered his critics as every scientist
should -- through science," Ron Lifshitz, a physics professor at
Tel Aviv University, told Reuters. "There were also personal
slurs but those did not warrant a response ... He believed in
his own work and carried on with determination."
Interviewed about his Nobel by television in Israel, where
the award was big national news for a small country with a long
roster of laureates, Shechtman spoke of a photograph in his
office that showed a small cat sipping water, surrounded by
angry dogs; a biblical inscription read: "Though I walk through
the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil".
"That's the way I felt for many years," Shechtman chuckled.
"It accurately describes the situation, during that period."
He "trusted in his science", however, and came to see the
criticism by the late Pauling, which Shechtman has described as
"almost theological", as a positive source of strength:
"When you're a young scientist, and you're faced with
perhaps the top international scientist, Professor Linus Pauling
... and he argues with you as an equal, and you know that he is
wrong - that's not really such a bad feeling."
(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