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From ridicule to Nobel: The quasi-crystals of Daniel Shechtman
November 8, 2011 1:00 PM   Subscribe

In 1982, Daniel Shechtman was on sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University studying aluminum-manganese alloys, and discovered that the resulting crystalline patterns of the alloy resulted in five-way symmetry, much like the famed Penrose Tiles. The resulting publication of these "quasicrystals" resulted in scathing ridicule from most of the scientific community, including Linus Pauling saying "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.", and his research director claiming he had "Brought disgrace" upon their program. However, by 1987 he had managed to grow large enough crystals to be imaged with electron microscopy, verifying his results. His subsequent studies of quasicrystals eventually earned him the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
posted by kaszeta (45 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was really hoping he was going to discover transparent aluminum with some well-timed help from a mysterious Scott.

But a Nobel is cool too, I guess.
posted by shothotbot at 1:02 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why do I keep hearing this story?

What's with the ridicule? Take the research, replicate it, prove it or disprove it and move on.

Hasn't this happened enough times that scientists should just focus more on work, than acting like the internet hate machine in periodicals?
posted by CarlRossi at 1:09 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Linus Pauling saying "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

Pretty rich coming from Pauling.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:14 PM on November 8, 2011 [16 favorites]


Thanks for the great post. Could someone here who knows about this stuff explain why it is that this guy's initial research findings generated so much controversy? Was there some theoretical or empirical reason why quasicrystals were considered laughably unlikely?
posted by Dr. Eigenvariable at 1:18 PM on November 8, 2011


They all laughed at Daniel Schectman
When he said quasicrystals he found
But HEY HEY HEY
Who's got the last laugh now!!!!
posted by spicynuts at 1:19 PM on November 8, 2011


And on the other hand, former colleagues at NIST believe he was given undue credit.
posted by clarknova at 1:19 PM on November 8, 2011


I remember seeing Linus Pauling on the Merv Griffin show all the time, talking about Vitamin C. He was usually on with another scientist - a long haired hippie-type guy. Anyway, good for Schectman.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:21 PM on November 8, 2011


I was going to say that if Pauling dissed him, that speaks volumes for him.
posted by spitbull at 1:34 PM on November 8, 2011


If I was Schectman I'd take a ride out to Lake Oswego and pay a visit to old man Pauling. And I'd stand athwart his simple grave with a bottle of Bourbon in one hand and my crotch in the other and I'd recite my Nobel citation at great volume from memory until I eventually tired of doing that or fell over or something.
posted by tigrefacile at 1:36 PM on November 8, 2011 [8 favorites]


That is TOTALLY what I'd do too. Except I would make sure I was pissing quasi-crystals.
posted by spicynuts at 1:37 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


HA HA HA FUCK YOU LINUS PAULING
posted by LarryC at 1:37 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


He was usually on with another scientist - a long haired hippie-type guy.

Durk Pearson
posted by doctor_negative at 1:37 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hope he thought to give Thomas Kuhn his cut of the Nobel money.

This kind of story is disappointing but not surprising. I'm up-and-coming through a science program, and I can see the pressure people around me are under to produce work that their colleagues or advisers will sign off on. I see masters theses whose premise is essentially "these data are lying around and need to be interpreted, how about you look at that?" Not that there's anything wrong with looking at data if they need to be looked at -- but maybe there's a reason they're just sitting around and no one's gotten around to it yet?

I Easter Egg hunts at church as a boy; there were essentially three types of kids. Some kids had their parent or older sibling go around and find eggs for them. Others followed around their friends and looked where other folks thought the eggs might be. The other kids looked where no one else is looking. Did the kids who looked where no one else was looking win the Easter Egg hunt? Maybe not. Among them were surely some share of paste eaters or what have you. But it has been my experience that very few people not in this last group ever walk the lonely road of developing true moral character, creative insight, real love for truth and the courage to be wrong. And without those qualities, you may be a damned fine technician, but you will probably not be a Scientist in the most noble/Nobel sense of the word.

Congratulations to Professor Shechtman.

(A fourth group of kids just stole the eggs that other kids found. They're either in prison or investment banks now, I guess)
posted by mister-o at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2011 [25 favorites]


I give him props for not designing a machine powered bt quasicrystals that could project his face on the moon shoutinging "Fools! You laughed at me and called me a quasi-scientist! Is THIS the work of a quasi-scientist?!"

I'm a little disappointed, too, but this tack shows gracious restraint.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:50 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


However, by 1987 he had managed to grow large enough crystals to be imaged with electron microscopy

Should be

However, by 1987 large enough crystals to be imaged with X-ray crystallography had been grown.

As per the Haaretz article linked under 1987 in the FPP.
posted by Authorized User at 1:54 PM on November 8, 2011


I give him props for not designing a machine powered bt quasicrystals that could project his face on the moon shoutinging "Fools! You laughed at me and called me a quasi-scientist! Is THIS the work of a quasi-scientist?!"

Kind of not seeing what the problem would have been with his doing so, myself.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:55 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


mister-o, I partly/mostly agree with your analogy and perspective on science, but over the years I've learned to understand that 97% of science is best performed by "damned fine technicians", that's the bulk of day-to-day science and it's simply wrong to undervalue its importance.

The part that you left out, and maybe it's because you're still in school, but that if you aspire to be a scientist in the "most noble/Nobel" sense of the word, basically your betting your entire livelihood on a sucker's bet. The odds are badly stacked against you. And it's not likely going to be because you lack the talent/genius to do that level of work, it's because for every person who does that sort of work, there's ten or more who are sufficiently talented but just not fortunate enough—either in choosing a research topic, or in research/academic politics, funding, personal life issues, or whatever.

Finally, it's also wrong to assume that Nobel winners are best represented by the kinds of "genius" groundbreaking or paradigm-shifting scientists you have in mind. Many of them are. But many of them are essentially very hard working, talented "technicians", in your sense, who have spent many, many years doing the rigorous, meticulous work that is necessary for a great deal of important science.

A write all this as someone who has loved science since a child, started out with a science education, later switched something which includes philosophy and history of science, and someone who's retained his love and fascination of science, and learning more science, through my middle-age. And, frankly, I'm very, very much a "look for eggs where the other kids aren't" person, like you. It took me a long time to really understand how science actually functions, as opposed to its mythology, and along the way to also understand and appreciate the value of a lot of the work, and the people who do it, that you don't much like. I urge you to consider rethinking some of your views...if for no reason but for your own benefit, as you choose your path.

With regard to the post, I really really liked the intendo.net Penrose Tiles piece.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:57 PM on November 8, 2011 [11 favorites]


Is it beneath the dignity of a Nobel Prize winner to say nyah nayh nyah?
posted by Cranberry at 1:59 PM on November 8, 2011


All I can say is...

PWNED, BITCHLINGS!

And he so needed a quasi-crystalline death ray.
posted by Samizdata at 2:07 PM on November 8, 2011


In this In Our Time on plate tectonics one of the contributors relates that when he was a young scientist some of the older scientists never believed it. That blows my mind. I always sort of thought Kuhn was exaggerating...
posted by shothotbot at 2:10 PM on November 8, 2011


Why do I keep hearing this story?

I can explain but I have to resort to a quasi-personal PoV because I really don't know jack about crystal formation in metals.

This happens a lot with chemistry related fields for a couple specific reasons: Your real life intuition is really pretty worthless at the molecular scale. In a 1 nM solution (pretty common when you're working with protein) there are more molecules of interest in 100 µL (a lowish concentration and a tiny volume) than there are cells in your brain, so even if your intuition were spot on, you have no hope of scaling it up in your head. So you have to resort to math. Unless you know where you're going when you start, math takes time and it doesn't look like you're accomplishing anything during that time. It does not do well in hallway conversations and God help you if you roll it out during a presentation. Graphs are better, but once you get beyond the simplest of three dimensional graphs you might as well have thrown up a slide full of calculus.

So now it's you, immediately after doing all the heavy lifting of trying to figure out the subtle nuances of something to a roof full of people who've not really looked at it in any detail since that one test during their junior year of college. And chances are they've replaced what they knew with a crude mental shorthand a few weeks after that test.

In retrospect, I'm surprised no one ever beat their chest and rushed me while waving their arms in the air.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:14 PM on November 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


One Nobel down, another to go. Now all Shechtman has to do next is bring peace to the Middle East.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:16 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Future scientists will look back on our time and say "too many Pauldings, not enough Shechtmans"
posted by rahnefan at 2:17 PM on November 8, 2011


They will?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:25 PM on November 8, 2011


No. They won't.
posted by rahnefan at 2:27 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the Reuters link: ("There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.")

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.

With this level of science reporting, it's no wonder Shechtman has had so much trouble.

Normally, metals are composed of regular, ordered crystals. Glass is almost certainly what the reporter meant. Though metals can form glasses too, under the right conditions
posted by bonehead at 2:27 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Future scientists will look back on our time and say "too many Pauldings, not enough Shechtmans"



"Ernie, have you been fiddling with the machine again? It's spitting out far too many robo-Paulings and not enough mechano-Shechtmans. Come on, you know the Paulings are shit when more than four of them get together!"
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 2:59 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


And on the other hand, former colleagues at NIST believe he was given undue credit.

clarknova, Do you have a link for this assertion?

Could someone here who knows about this stuff explain why it is that this guy's initial research findings generated so much controversy? Was there some theoretical or empirical reason why quasicrystals were considered laughably unlikely?

I think it's probably just that it's quite counter-intuitive that you can tile space with a finite set of tiles without the pattern repeating at some point. It took advanced work in mathematics to show that aperiodic tilings exist.
posted by snoktruix at 2:59 PM on November 8, 2011


Love hearing stories like this, and I can't think of a justification for the snark that Pauling said, or for his advisor to archly suggest leaving the program, but I suppose that for all the paradigm shifts like quasicrystals, or Plate Tectonics, or prions, there are a hundred where people are still trying to find phlogiston or a perpetual motion machine. Not justifying the the shit he got, but I can see, if you are managing a young grad student, and young grad student comes up with something that.is.not.supposed.to.be that you sort of roll your eyes and wonder about young grad student.

Not being a scientist or an academic, I don't know what the answer is, or how to separate the truly visionary ground breaking stuff from *big mistakes* by researchers just starting out.
posted by xetere at 3:05 PM on November 8, 2011


None of these links have a good picture of a quasicrystal.

Here
posted by overhauser at 3:22 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


If nothing else, this Nobel has brought out the hate for a long dead laureate, Pauling. The reason everyone is quoting Pauling is that he was an incredible scientist at one time and very famous, but it is not like he wasn't wrong before. He was wrong about Vitamin C and he was wrong about the structure of DNA.

Criticism is part of science, and almost all scientists I know have a story of being chewed up by a senior colleague. When I was a grad student in chemistry an alum that was pretty well known in the field came back to give a lecture. I sat up front for the speech and heard the alum being introduced to the professors who populated the first row. He was shaking hands and the professor that was doing the introductions said to him, "Now do you remember this face?", while pointing to one of the seated profs. "Of course", he replied very coldly, "you are the guy who didn't believe my results and wouldn't sign my dissertation". The alum was there for his 80th birthday celebration and the prof he was still bitter with was now in his 90s. Some people don't forget.
posted by roquetuen at 3:38 PM on November 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


The horse says...Doctorate denied!
posted by gorgor_balabala at 3:44 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


The alum was there for his 80th birthday celebration and the prof he was still bitter with was now in his 90s. Some people don't forget.

That reminds me of a story someone told me about a professor in the Stanford applied physics department. This guy was a notorious pain in the ass, not in an in-your-face-aggressive-asshole way, but in a passive-aggressive way. For a long time, he had a graduate student who was his right-hand man. The student had been with him for about a decade (!) and had been instrumental in the professor's main research at the time.

So after this insanely long stint, the student writes up his thesis and hands it to the professor for his comments. Instead of the small corrections he had expected, given his massive knowledge and research contributions, the professor had told him that he needed to make major changes to his thesis. I assume that the professor had more or less implied that the student needed to do additional experiments to fully complete his thesis.

The student then packed up his stuff and left Stanford. The professor was shocked at this response and tried to contact him at his home. The student's relatives had been told not to let the professor talk to his now-former student. Eventually, the professor had a codicil written into his will stating that should the student ever decide to submit his thesis for defense, it was to be understood that the professor would sign off on it.

Having been in graduate school in the sciences, no part of this story or roqueten's anecdote surprise me in the slightest. Hell, I'd like to see the former graduate student who could forget something like that, even 50-plus years later.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 3:58 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I mostly wonder about this whole thing because as a chemist, I can't think of a darned reason why quasi-crystals shouldn't exist; I open my classes each year with a reminder that everything I teach is at best a useful lie, and that there's exceptions to everything if you get cold enough, or high enough energy, or both.

Of course, I'm not a crystallographer, so it's possible that my ignorance is leading me to think this is a pretty underwhelming Nobel, but it feels to me like an award mostly for dispelling the superstitions of a small sub-field full of people who notoriously think more in terms of dark arts than science anyway.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:33 PM on November 8, 2011


I mostly wonder about this whole thing because as a chemist, I can't think of a darned reason why quasi-crystals shouldn't exist

Huh, really? Before I learned about quasi-crystals (in 1992), my intuition would have led me to believe that the sort of asymmetry involved would be energetically unfavorable. Which isn't totally wrong, given the relative rarity of naturally-occurring quasicrystals.

This just goes to show that my intuition (as Kid Charlemagne points out) was a wholly inadequate tool for Nobel-laureate level science.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 4:40 PM on November 8, 2011


But, but... I thought all scientists were selfless and infallible! Doubting the current received wisdom is nothing but ignorant denialism!

This Shechtman heretic will be proved wrong in the end!
posted by TSOL at 4:59 PM on November 8, 2011


The research that led me to learn about quasicrystals is another story: research done in my advisor's group used Ammann tiling (the 8-fold analogue of Penrose tiling) in order to study superconducting wire networks.

A quick and very dirty description goes something like this: there are type-I superconductors, which are perfectly diamagnetic -- there's no field in the interiors when they superconduct, and there are type-2 superconductors, which admit some magnetic field when they superconduct.

You can make a rough analogue of the flux penetration in a 3-dimensional type-2 superconductors by making a 2-dimensional network where the wires are made of type-1 superconducting material. What happens is that you now have closed loops where the magnetic flux through the loop is quantized.

For certain patterns, the superconducting transition temperature of the entire network is higher. For example, if there's a checkerboard pattern of one flux, no flux, one flux, no flux, etc. Or if 1/3 or 2/3 of the loops have flux quanta, and the others have none.

With Ammann tiling, the ratio of the area of the 2 types of tiles is irrational. But you still get certain applied magnetic fields which give significantly better transition temperatures. What's really interesting is that you can create pseudo-tiles which cover the entire space, and that if you assume that these pseudo-tiles have the flux quantized inside of them (although that doesn't make any physical sense), it corresponds to the applied fields which have the higher transition temperatures.

One other thing which amazed me about the experimental data: if you plot the transition temperature (y-axis) versus the applied magnetic field (x-axis), you get the bottom edge of Hofstadter's butterfly (if you look at the picture captioned "Hofstadter's bufferfly in a square lattice", it's the boundary between the bottom white space and the fractal.

Which just goes to show that chemistry and physics imitate math, if you look hard enough.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 5:02 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Among them were surely some share of paste eaters or what have you
posted by benzenedream at 5:07 PM on November 8, 2011


Which just goes to show that chemistry and physics imitate math, if you look hard enough.

Or vise versa, it's hard to tell. I sometimes take the view that abstract math is just a physical theory we haven't found yet. Group theory is a favorite example, perhaps more fundamental to chemistry than the periodic table (comprehending not just the periodic table, but also describing how colours work and why reactions take place). Which fits neatly into the present prize: taking Penrose tiles as an extension space group theory. One of those obvious-in-retrospect things that never seems to occur to anyone else.
posted by bonehead at 5:58 PM on November 8, 2011


Pretty rich coming from Pauling

I am so glad roquetuen mentioned the fact that Pauling was wrong about the structure of DNA. His error was such a clanger that James Watson says in The Double Helix, "If a student had made a similar mistake, he would be thought unfit to benefit from Cal Tech's chemistry faculty." Yet Pauling was (and always will be) a giant of science. Even the best are human, and humans, no matter how bright, can screw up royally.

I recall seeing a TV interview with Pauling not long before he died. The interviewer asked Pauling how he had so many great ideas. His answer: "I just have a lot of ideas. Then I throw out the bad ones." More than once, it seems, Pauling failed to heed his own advice.

Which leads me to wonder how many times Daniel Shechtman has cocked up grandly. Someone should ask him.
posted by dmayhood at 6:42 PM on November 8, 2011


There is a reason Schechtman's observations were considered unlikely: the father of (and Nobel laureate for) X-ray crystallography, WL Bragg, had done the early work and found that the symmetry in crystals was 2-, 3-, 4,- or 6-fold. That was it. Schechtman observed five-fold symmetry in a point group of 10. Unpossible. It was so much a canon of crystallography that he attracted instant ridicule. There are geometric proofs and all kinds of things that proved he couldn't be seeing what he was seeing: "twinned" crystals could create those images and they are a common foible in specimen preparation. To his credit, he doubted his own observations, explicated well in the linked article in the Grauniad.

And what a modest hero Schechtman turned out to be, generous to his detractors and apparently vaguely surprised by the whole thing. The entire story is beautiful.
posted by jet_silver at 7:06 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some pastes are actually quite good, c.f. Nutella.
posted by rainy at 7:16 PM on November 8, 2011


I guess my thought is that it sure seems like crystallographers just looked at all the (brilliant) stuff done by Bragg and just said "welp, that's all that's out there, I guess", which is more than a little naive.

But then, I'm from an organic background, where there pretty much aren't any rules that can't be broken if you just throw enough heat, voltage, or palladium at the problem (totally called that Nobel, by the way). Perhaps I think this is underwhelming because I've always felt that absolutes were the realm of physics (which admittedly crystallography is much closer to), and that chemistry should be operating without that sort of dogma.

(To any of my students who might read this: no you still can't make 5 bonds to carbon and I will mark your crazy structure wrong unless you can tell me how a CI mass spec works and why it can get away with ridiculous things like CH5+)
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:53 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another chapter in the multi-century story of older, established scientists expressing disbelief at some newfangled idea. (I think someone said that it would be impossible for a heavier-than-air machine to fly, shortly before Wilbur and Orville took off from Kitty Hawk.) So yes, scientists are human after all, and not just dispassionate slaves to data.
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:34 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ladies and gentlemen I would just like to say it's an unbelievable honour to accept this award and QUASI YOUR MUM LINUS PAULING
posted by Not Supplied at 7:22 AM on November 9, 2011


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