When Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman claimed to have stumbled upon a new crystalline chemical structure that seemed to violate the laws of nature, colleagues mocked him, insulted him and exiled him from his research group.
After years in the scientific wilderness, though, he was proved right. And on Wednesday, he received the ultimate vindication: the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
[...]In 1982, Shechtman discovered what are now called "quasicrystals" — atoms arranged in patterns that seemed forbidden by nature.
"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying," he recalled. "I never took it personally. I knew I was right and they were wrong."
The discovery "fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in awarding the $1.5 million prize.
Since his discovery, quasicrystals have been produced in laboratories, and a Swedish company found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, which is now used in products such as razor blades and thin needles made specifically for eye surgery, the academy said. Quasicrystals are also being studied for use in new materials that convert heat to electricity.
Quasicrystals of an alloy of aluminum, copper, and iron, displaying an external
form consistent with their icosahedral symmetry.
Shechtman is a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. He is the 10th Israeli Nobel winner, a great source of pride in a nation of just 7.8 million people. Shechtman fielded congratulatory calls from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.So many people who stick to their guns despite the odds are stubborn cusses or just plain nuts.
"Every citizen of Israel is happy today and every Jew in the world is proud," Netanyahu 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 sabbatical at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington — now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology — Shechtman first observed crystals with a shape most scientists considered impossible.
The discovery had to do with the idea that a crystal shape can be rotated a certain amount and still look the same. A square contains four-fold 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.
"I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me," he said in an account released by his university.
But every now and then they are geniuses!