Quasicrystal Research Implications for Undergraduate Chemistry Students

The "forbidden symmetry" of the quasicrystal was first spied in 1982.(10)

Challenges in Scientific Research

Shechtman's resolve in the face of ridicule delivers an important lesson to chemistry students: Stand by your data, even if it contradicts accepted science. Emulate renowned scientists who had overcome disbelief and ridicule. Shechtman's career demonstrates this concept; he vigorously defended his work, and it eventually led to the Nobel prize

Scientists must battle resistance from a number of opposing forces. Researchers face adversity not only from peers, as Schechtman did, but also from political leaders, the public, the media and possibly themselves.

Government agencies and private industry often have financial and ideological investment in the outcome of scientific research. (7) Consequently, research can be hindered. Recent examples include stem cell research and climate change. In 2009, President Obama overturned an order that prevented the National Institutes of Health from funding research on embryonic stem cells. Such progress is encouraging, but political obstructions to unbiased science remain.

Public distrust of scientific research is also on the rise. American citizens are well aware of government and private industry influence on science and they are naturally cautious. Web access to scientific information and science topics like disease prevention and global warming create a more educated and invested public force. When such a force leans against research findings, application of science can be slowed.

Scientists are under a great deal of pressure to show results in a field known for incremental developments. Scientific American journalist John Ioannidis reports “false positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years.” (8) In a recent interview with a group of science writers, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Assistant Professor Sivappa Rasapalli said that overstating results has become one of the more prominent controversies in scientific research. “The two questions today are ‘Can this get published in a good journal?’ and ‘Can this get funded?’. This does not lead to good science," Rasapalli warned.

Chances are most scientists will face these challenges without the prestige of a Nobel Prize and the accompanying $1.5 million award. Dr. Schectman said, "The moment you are convinced of a scientific truth, it doesn't matter what people say. But for that you have to be a professional. You have to be good at what you are doing, and when someone argues with you about the data you have collected, you have to be certain yourself that you did it right.” (9)

Researcher Q & A

To explain the relevance of quasicrystal research to undergraduate chemistry students, we asked Sivappa Rasapalli and David Manke of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Chemistry department to engage in a question and answer session with graduate scientific journalism students.
  • Q: What should researchers and students do when faced with non-believers?
Sivappa Rasapalli suggests that students and researchers "continue what you believe in. Don't give up." He recommends that if you face resistance from your peers and colleagues, you should "go to another lab" and be persistent.
  • Q: Previous significant scientific discoveries have, at times, been "explained away" to justify the accepted theories. Why does this happen?
Sivappa Rasapalli says: "Some sets of principles settle in, and people may not be ready to accept [change]." He recommends that students have a hypothesis, and be objective. "You have to rely on the data. If your data supports your hypothesis, you must decide what's next. However, if you know what you're going to expect," he says, "that's not research." Most importantly, he says "the science must be reproducible."

The scientific community often becomes fixated on established theories and definitions. These fixations can become like blinders, creating the equivalent of scientific tunnel vision. Scientists shouldn't dismiss controversial theories and ideas outright. If there is reasonable data to support a theory out of the status quo, there just might be something worth investigating further. Many scientists, including Daniel Shechtman, have faced contempt and controversy over the content and implications of their theories. Here are a few other prominent examples of theories that were initially ridiculed, only to later have their respective scientists vindicated. Many of these theories lay the foundation for modern science.

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