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Tecnion’s Shechtman Wins Nobel in Chemistry for Quasicrystals Discovery

By Andrea Gerlin
October 05, 2011 10:17 AM EDT
Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman gives a press conference in the Technion Institute of Technology.
Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman gives a press conference in the Technion Institute of Technology.

An Israeli scientist won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for changing the prevailing views about the atomic structure of matter with his discovery of quasicrystals.

Dan Shechtman, 70, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, will get the 10 million-kronor ($1.4 million) award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said at a press conference in Stockholm today.

Shechtman persevered in the face of doubt and ridicule in describing a form of crystal whose patterns are regular but never repeat, a notion that shattered scientists’ belief that all crystals consist of recurring patterns. The structure endows quasicrystals with unique properties that may lead to better frying pans, LED lights and diesel engines, the academy said.

“His discovery of quasicrystals revealed a new principle for packing of atoms and molecules,” said Lars Thelander, who leads the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at academy. “This led to a paradigm shift within chemistry.”

Quasicrystals look like the aperiodic mosaics found on the walls of the Alhambra Palace near Granada, Spain. They are hard but fracture easily, like glass, and have non-stick surfaces.

Shechtman was working at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology when he made his initial discovery. He had rapidly chilled a molten mixture of aluminum and manganese on the morning of April 8, 1982. It seemed strange, and when he examined it with his electron microscope, he couldn’t believe what he saw: concentric circles, each made of 10 dots at the same distance from each other. The atoms were arranged in a way that flouted the laws of nature, the Nobel committee wrote in a document describing Shechtman’s achievements.

Resistance and Ridicule

“There can be no such creature,” he said to himself in Hebrew. In his notebook, he wrote three question marks, according to the Nobel committee document.

Scientists greeted Shechtman’s discovery with resistance, even ridicule, the committee said. The head of his laboratory suggested he read a textbook on crystallography. When Shechtman persisted in his experiments, he was asked to leave the research group.

“He’s an independent thinker, determined and brave,” Yoav Shechtman, one of the scientist’s four children and a Ph.D student in physics, said in a telephone interview. Reached on the phone, Shechtman himself said he couldn’t comment until a press conference arranged for 2 p.m. local time in Haifa.

Shechtman turned back to Technion, where he had earned his doctorate in 1972, for advice about his findings, contacting a colleague there named Ilan Blech. After consulting other scientists in the U.S. and France, Shechtman published the data in November 1984.

Modest Scientist

The article spurred crystallographers around the world to reconsider their own beliefs, according to the Nobel committee. Soon other patterns once thought impossible began appearing. The arrangements resembled those of medieval mosaics found at the Alhambra and at the Darb-i Imam shrine in Iran, the Nobel committee said. Those mosaics employ a limited number of tiles to create patterns that never repeat.

“The main lesson that I have learned over the years is that a good scientist is a modest and attentive scientist,” Shechtman said at a press conference in Haifa. Regarding the impact the prize will have on his life, he said “I will return to teach at the Technion. Life will return relatively quickly to normal, I imagine.”

The International Union of Crystallography altered its definition of a crystal in 1992, broadening it as a result of Shechtman’s findings. Scientists first reported naturally occurring quasicrystals in 2009, in a new kind of mineral found in the Khatyrka River in eastern Russia.

Nobel’s Will

“This was a scientist that had an idea that people didn’t think was possible and he was able to convince others that it was,” Nancy Jackson, president of the American Chemical Society, said in a phone interview from Albuquerque, New Mexico. “That’s the most exciting thing that can happen in science.”

Last year’s Nobel in chemistry was awarded to Richard F. Heck, Akira Suzuki and Ei-Ichi Negishi for developing tools to synthesize carbon-based molecules found in nature, which paved the way for new medicines and plastics.

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900 and the prizes were first handed out the following year.

The first Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jacobus H. van ‘t Hoff for his work on rates of reaction, chemical equilibrium and osmotic pressure.

Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess won the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday for discovering that the universe’s expansion is accelerating, shattering their own expectations and raising questions about the dark energy behind the surge.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Gerlin in London at agerlin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino in Paris at pserafino@bloomberg.net.

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