People who work with crystals have received an inordinate number of Nobel Prizes. Some of them receive the prize because of the importance of the compounds they have worked on.  Protein crystallographers have helped to unravel the mysteries of such things as photosynthesis and how hemoglobin transports oxygen. The Protein Data Bank (PDB) is a treasure trove of interesting and useful results from crystallographic experiments.  The prize has also been awarded to people who have invented new methods for the determination of structures from crystallographic data.

Usually, like most scientists, I read the news reports of the science prizes and try to understand what the winners did and why it is important. In this particular case, I saw most of the action as it developed.

Shechtman obtained experimental evidence – a diffraction pattern – for five-fold symmetry in what later came to be known as quasi-crystals. This is not supposed to happen.  He realized the importance of this observation and proceeded to publish and defend it.  According to a detailed scientific description of the work released by the Nobel folks:  “The achievement of Daniel Shechtman is clearly not only the discovery of quasicrystals, but the realization of the importance of this result and the determination to communicate it to a skeptical scientific community.”

His jaw-dropping discovery was initially greeted with skepticism, for example:

“When Shechtman told scientists about his discovery, he was faced with complete opposition, and some colleagues even resorted to ridicule. Many claimed that what he had observed was in fact a twin crystal. The head of the laboratory gave him a textbook of crystallography and suggested he should read it … All the commotion finally led his boss to ask him to leave the research group, as Shechtman himself recalled later.”

And the most influential twin proponent at that time was Nobel laureate Linus Pauling. I consider the late chemist to be one of the greatest scientists alive then. The twin theory or model explains the experimental data by “twinning” or the interpenetration of two – at least – separate crystals.  It is a well known phenomenon that can lead to very strange diffraction patterns.  I heard Pauling give a talk on his twinning theory that I found absolutely convincing. But then, I was a fan. Pauling later had to amend his initial twinning model, but by that time the evidence had mounted – from all over the world – that the quasi-crystal phenomenon could not be explained simply by twinning.

Upon first making his observation, Shechtman reports saying to himself: “Eyn chaya kazo” (Hebrew for: “There can be no such creature”). No doubt he realized the heat he would take for reporting this discovery.

מזל טוב, Professor Shechtman.

This piece was originally posted on the Chronicle of HIgher Education Brainstorm Blog and is used with permission.

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