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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 5, 2011

A Quasicrystal Nobel Prize

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Posted by Derek

Well, the field bet won this year - no one had Daniel Schechtman and quasicrystals in their predictions, as far as I know. This is one of those prizes that is not easy to communicate to someone outside the field, but if I had to sum it up in one phrase for a nonscientist, it would be "Discovery of crystals that everyone thought were impossible".

That's because they have five-fold symmetry, among other types. And the problem there is pretty easy to show: if you take a bunch of identical triangles (any triangle at all), you can tile them out and cover a surface evenly - imagine a tabletop mosaic or a bathroom floor. And that works with any rectangle, too, naturally, and it also works with hexagons. But it does not work with regular pentagons (or with any other regular geometric figure). Gaps appear that cannot be closed. You can cheat and tile the plane with two types of bent pentagons or the like, but closer inspection shows that these cases are all really tiles of one of the allowed classes.

The same problems appear in three-dimensional crystals, and five-fold symmetry, in any of its forms, is just not allowed (and had never been seen). But in the early 1980s there came a report of just that. Daniel Schechtman, working at the National Bureau of Standards, had found a metallic crystalline substance that seemed to show clear evidence of an impossible form. I was in grad school when the result came out, and I well remember the stir it caused. Just publishing the result took a lot of nerve, since every single crystallographer in the world would tell you that if they knew one thing about their field, it was that you couldn't have something like this.

As it turned out, these issues had already been well explored by two different groups: medieval Islamic artists and mathematicians. It turns out that what looks like unallowable symmetry in two (or three) dimensions works out just fine in higher-dimensional spaces, and these theoretical underpinnings were actually a lot of help in the debates that followed.

Here's a good history of what happened afterwards. One thing that I recalled was that Linus Pauling wasn't buying it for a minute. He was, of course, quite old by that time, but he was still a force to be reckoned with in his own areas of expertise, despite the damage he'd done to his reputation with all the Vitamin C business. He kept up the barrage for the remainder of his life, publishing one of his last scientific papers (in 1992) on the subject and arguing yet again that the quasicrystal idea was mistaken. As that above-linked paper from Schechtman's co-worker John Cahn put it:

Quasicrystals provided win-win opportunities for crystallographers: If we were mistaken about them, expert crystallographers could debunk us; if we were right, here was an opportunity to be a trail blazer. While many crystallographers worldwide availed themselves of the opportunity, U.S. crystallographers avoided it, to a large extent because of Pauling’s influence.

But time has shown that the quasicrystal hypothesis is correct. You can have local symmetries of this kind, and many other "impossible" examples have been discovered since. The resolution of the X-ray structures has gotten better and better, ruling out all the other explanations - Pauling would have found it painful to watch. The resulting solids have rather odd properties, although if someone asked me to name any effect that they've had on anyone's daily life, I'd have to answer "none at all". But I'm sympathetic to anyone who proves something in science that no one thought could be proved, so Nobel Prize it is, and congratulations.

A side note: anyone want to take bets on whether some ayatollah or other Iranian politician will pop up, claiming that the whole subject of the prize was anticipated by the 15th-century Darb-e Imam shrine in Isfahan? Let's set the odds. . .

Comments (34) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News


COMMENTS

1. Anonymous BMS Researcher on October 5, 2011 8:16 AM writes...

Yep, I also was astonished and delighted to hear on NPR that quasicrystals got the Nobel. Also see this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penrose_tiling

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2. My 0.02 on October 5, 2011 8:29 AM writes...

It is a surprised win. But this prize mirrors the Physics Prize this. Both are for discovery totally contrary to what the field believes at the time.

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3. opsomath on October 5, 2011 8:39 AM writes...

I love it. Clarke's First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

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4. DisgruntledIranian on October 5, 2011 9:29 AM writes...

Of course this is a pathetic attempt by the Western semitic elites to rewrite their own hegemonic version of history. Nobody gives a fig in Iran about this, it's all a tasteless display of capitalist chutzpah which is soon going to dissolve in a conflagration of its own making.

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5. luysii on October 5, 2011 9:35 AM writes...

Great stuff all right. But do y'all think this is chemistry? Isn't it really physics?

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6. Curious Wavefunction on October 5, 2011 9:54 AM writes...

I think it's both. In fact this recognition might appease the critics who claim that there are no new fundamental discoveries in chemical science, only practical applications of known phenomena. In this regard I would probably rank the discovery of quasicrystals higher than, say, that of fullerenes.

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7. wearinbeads on October 5, 2011 10:04 AM writes...

When I was in graduate school, it seemed in every class I took that Linus Pauling had made giant contributions to that field. It was such a shock to learn how giantly wrong he could be.

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8. Rob on October 5, 2011 10:17 AM writes...

What I remember from ACA meetings was Pauling getting to bigger and bigger models where the asymmetric unit was basically the Penrose tiling. Which is exactly how you would calculate the intensities for the quasicrystal. He wasn't exactly pleased when this was pointed out.

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9. luysii on October 5, 2011 10:20 AM writes...

"It turns out that what looks like unallowable symmetry in two (or three) dimensions works out just fine in higher-dimensional spaces, and these theoretical underpinnings were actually a lot of help in the debates that followed."

I've always found this fascinating, but unable to fully understand it -- quasicrystals being a projection from a higher dimensional space into ours. For those of you who've read Flatland it makes me feel like the 'humble square' of Abbott's book.

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10. luysii on October 5, 2011 10:22 AM writes...

"It turns out that what looks like unallowable symmetry in two (or three) dimensions works out just fine in higher-dimensional spaces, and these theoretical underpinnings were actually a lot of help in the debates that followed."

I've always found this fascinating, but unable to fully understand it -- quasicrystals being a projection from a higher dimensional space into ours. For those of you who've read Flatland it makes me feel like the 'humble square' of Abbott's book.

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11. Paul on October 5, 2011 10:40 AM writes...

When I was in graduate school, it seemed in every class I took that Linus Pauling had made giant contributions to that field. It was such a shock to learn how giantly wrong he could be.

You mean, as in his obviously wrong structure for DNA?

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12. Aspirin on October 5, 2011 10:48 AM writes...

"It turns out that what looks like unallowable symmetry in two (or three) dimensions works out just fine in higher-dimensional spaces, and these theoretical underpinnings were actually a lot of help in the debates that followed."

Does this mean that quasicrystals could provide evidence for the higher dimensions postulated in string theory?

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13. Russ on October 5, 2011 10:57 AM writes...

Frank Bordwell once said the measure of a man's greatness is how long his erroneous ideas retard progress in his field.

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14. leftscienceawhileago on October 5, 2011 11:58 AM writes...

Derek,
Another simpler way to think about penrose tilings:

The argument behind the crystallographic restriction theorem (that the plane can only have 2,3,4 and 6 fold centers of rotation) is pretty simple. It relies on showing that if you hook the lattice vectors for 5 fold symmetry (and for 7 fold+), the reguar spacing of the lattice could be arbitrarily small.

Get rid of the regular (periodic) spacing requirement for tiling the plane, and all the sudden there is nothing stopping you from having a 5 fold axis.

It's neat that this can be seen in actual physical materials. Deserving of the prize IMHO.

How many of us really understand why there are 230 spacegroups? A good (very accessible, man many many pretty pictures) book on the topic:

The Symmetry Of Things
Conway et al.

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15. HFM on October 5, 2011 1:31 PM writes...

@opsomath: Clarke's First Law has yet to fail me. Just remember the corollary - if the distinguished but elderly scientist is ambivalent, that project is almost certainly doomed.

I didn't see this one coming either, but it's a good story (one I hadn't heard before).

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16. CMCguy on October 5, 2011 2:42 PM writes...

Relative to #6 CW stated claim by critics and yesterdays thread on Physics vs Chemistry is it because for the most part majority of other sciences (e.g. Biology and Physics) continue to focus on basic Why and How Questions whereas Chemistry today tends more to the What and Where directions (Where can it be used and What improvements can be made)? For Chemistry (Org part at least) does appear to try to compete with Nature by being engaged in natural product syntheses, generating compound aimed to modulate biosystems or reaction-wise attempting to achieve catalytic results at levels observed with enzymes and such. All these seem losing battles at the start from competition point but the challenges have certain potential occasional rewards. It's hard, since often progress incremental, to fit into the Nobel criteria as more break-through or high impact.

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17. hn on October 5, 2011 4:09 PM writes...

It's crystallography, the arrangement of atoms in matter. Of course it's chemistry!

I view chemistry as the central science. If something cool is discovered involving atoms and molecules, we can grin and say, "Yup, that's chemistry, that's what I do."

The troubling alternative is to classify the cool, interdisciplinary stuff outside of our domain. Then we'll be left with a shrinking field, with dying public interest.

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18. bad wolf on October 5, 2011 4:09 PM writes...

The combination of Islamic art motifs + Israeli citizen? Looks like another political Nobel from the savants of Sweden.

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19. Hap on October 5, 2011 4:14 PM writes...

Are you sure Father Mulcahy didn't pick him?

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20. good sheep on October 5, 2011 4:33 PM writes...

It would be completely normal for an Israeli citizen to claim something that is part of arabic tradition as his own, eg hummus and falafil. Business as usual.

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21. anonymous on October 5, 2011 6:42 PM writes...

@#20
Good one...LMAO!!!
Signed, ex-Brandeis Goyim Post-Doc

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22. Ann on October 5, 2011 8:41 PM writes...

What rubbish

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23. cliffintokyo on October 6, 2011 4:03 AM writes...

Delayed Reaction: So What?
For the same reason that total synthesis of 1 mg of a natural product will never lead to award of a Nobel Prize. What's the Use?

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24. dpb on October 6, 2011 4:24 AM writes...

@Aspirin:

"Does this mean that quasicrystals could provide evidence for the higher dimensions postulated in string theory?"

No. All it means is that higher dimensional mathematics make it easier to understand the structure.

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25. anon on October 6, 2011 6:17 AM writes...

Too bad Penrose isn't included - a mathematician contributing to a Chemistry prize would have had a certain symmetry of its own. He'll have to remain satisfied with his Fields Medal.

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26. JH on October 6, 2011 6:53 AM writes...

#25:
Actually when they announced the prize, the first question asked by a journalist was whether Penrose and some others should have been included as well. The member of the committee gave a thorough answer with the bottom line of the prize being given for discovery of this phenomenon in actual matter and not for the idea in itself.

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27. dearieme on October 6, 2011 7:49 AM writes...

"..if someone asked me to name any effect that they've had on anyone's daily life, I'd have to answer "none at all"." In which case, this isn't strictly qualified for the Nobel Prize: from WKPD - "Nobel's last will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind"..". No benefit, no prize: they should have waited for a benefit to emerge. Of course, it's become routine to ignore what the will says.

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28. Chronic Fatigue Sufferer on October 6, 2011 8:27 AM writes...

"A side note: anyone want to take bets on whether some ayatollah or other Iranian politician will pop up, claiming that the whole subject of the prize was anticipated by the 15th-century Darb-e Imam shrine in Isfahan? Let's set the odds. . ."

I'd say the odds are extremely high. Nationalism and 'historical prior art', I think it's a foregone conclusion.

What happened to Linus Pauling anyway? Reminds a little of what happened to tesla in his old age...
and tesla suggested Ruđer Bošković discovered or at least laid the groundwork for the theory of relativity - an analagous situation?.

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29. just sayin' on October 6, 2011 12:47 PM writes...

#27: Quoted from the BBC article yesterday, "Quasicrystal structures tend to be hard, non-sticky and are poor conductors of heat and electricity. These properties make them useful as coatings for frying pans and as insulating material for electrical wires.

They are also found in the world's most durable steel, used in razor blades and ultra-fine needles in eye surgery.

"It's a great work of discovery, with potential applications that range from light-emitting diodes to improved diesel engines," said the president of the American Chemical Society, Nancy Jackson."

Debunk and poke fun freely, but it seems like predicting and/or selecting better materials based on this discovery could be done now.

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30. David Pendlebury on October 6, 2011 3:36 PM writes...

"...no one had Daniel Schechtman and quasicrystals in their predictions, as far as I know..."

In fact, Thomson Reuters named Daniel Shechtman a Citation Laureate in 2008, thereby forecasting him as a Nobel Prize winner in that or a future year. We also named Roger Penrose a Citation Laureate in the same year and suggested their joint Nobel Prize would be for "Penrose tilings/quasicrystals." We suggested Shechtman and Penrose for a prize in physics (Shechtman won the Wolf Prize in Physics, not Chemistry, in 1999), but it is not surprising, given the nature of this discovery, that the Nobel came in chemistry.

So far this Nobel season, all seven Nobel Prize winners are Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates, named as such in either 2008 or 2010.

See: http://science.thomsonreuters.com/nobel/

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31. cliffintokyo on October 6, 2011 9:40 PM writes...

Disappointed that no-one seems to be making the case for a Nobel Prize for total synthesis.
Is this symptomatic of how poor at communication chemists are?
Axiom for C21: Justify or Die.
There is now no comfort zone and no room for disdain or apathy. Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Perhaps 'Silicon Valley' should create the Steve Jobs Prize? No greater honor, etc.

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32. uday karmakar on October 7, 2011 6:53 AM writes...

quasi crystal discovery is excellence but would like to know more about it and fundamental

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33. Anonymous on October 7, 2011 7:21 AM writes...

#31 - "Disappointed that no-one seems to be making the case for a Nobel Prize for total synthesis."

I'm glad they got passed over - seems like most of the nastiest slave-driver professors are in total synthesis! Last thing the field needs is an ego boost for one of them!

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34. newnickname on October 7, 2011 3:49 PM writes...

A. As I understand it, Schechtman's award isn't really a Nobel Prize. It's a Quasi-Nobel Prize.

B. What about Honda and Fujishima for 2012? So many lists mention Graetzel, but you need the Honda-Fujishima Effect (discovered in 1967) BEFORE you can have a Graetzel. And grad student Fujishima made the discovery while looking for a totally different result.


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