Daniel Shechtman's Nobel Journey

Quasicrystal Find Creates Skepticism

University chemistry students quickly learn that scientific discovery involves painstaking testing, accurate data compilation and peer-reviewed publication. Daniel Shechtman's Nobel Prize pursuit illustrates another tenet: Offset doubt with solid science and resilience.

As a scientist working with light aviation alloys, Shechtman studied exotic chemical compounds at the atomic level (9). One can imagine his excitement when he found a formally unseen crystal formation. Like receiving a landed punch in the dark, he told his colleagues and a few laughed in disbelief (9).

Shechtman's associates at the United States National Bureau of Standards tired of his quasicrystal theory. In a video interview (posted at right) (13), Shechtman described the day when a fellow researcher and close friend asked him to leave his research group because of the controversy caused by his quasicrystal find. The video also describes an incident in which a colleague handed him a basic chemistry book and sarcastically told him to read it closely.

Eventually, a frustrated Shechtman joined another research group at a different institute (9). They were unable to replicate his experiment because they didn't have the interest or high-powered electron microscope skills necessary to prove the validity of his claim (9).

Delayed Publication Fuels Controversy

To silence his critics, Shechtman had to validate his findings by publishing his research in a peer-reviewed journal. Two years after his initial discovery, Ian Blech, a fellow researcher from Israel’s Technion University wrote a paper that supported Shechtman’s findings (14). The respected Journal of Applied Physics refused to publish the paper because they felt that their publication wouldn’t provide a suitable audience (14). The trade publication Metallurgical Transactions accepted the article but never actually published it (14). Desperate for publication, Shechtman condensed the paper with the assistance of John Cain, his host at the National Bureau of Standards (14).

In 1984, Physical Review Letters published the condensed version of the paper (14). Shechtman described how to recreate the experiment and a few scientists duplicated the experiment (14). His publication created acclaim but it also fueled controversy as several prominent scientists including two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling became vocal disbelievers (9).

Linus Pauling Leads Skeptics

Pauling, probably the most famous chemist of this time, published a rebuttal article in the October 10,1985 issue of Nature. In the article, he argued that Shectman’s irregular-shaped crystals were formed by a natural process called icosahedral twinning. He also claimed that Shechtman actually observed a crystal formation caused by a merging of conventional crystal shapes, not the unusual “five-fold axis” Shechtman identified .

Pauling further disputed Shechtman’s findings in a letter to the editor published in the January 4,1986 issue of Science News. The letter, titled “The Nonsense about Quasicrystals,” included a lament that many other crystallographers lost interest in disproving Shechtman.

Determined to disprove Shechtman, Pauling retreated to the laboratory. In the November 15, 1988 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences he published a paper titled Unified Structure Theory of Icosahedral Quasicrystals. The paper began with a strong denunciation of Shechtman's work and included data supporting Pauling’s twinning theory.

Shechtman Prevails

In the following years, Pauling lambasted Shechtman at many scientific conferences. Shechtman described one conference where Pauling's opening statement included the comment: "Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists." (9) To offset Pauling's persistent rebuttal, Shechtman persevered by reading //The Structure of Scientific Revolutions// by Thomas Kuhn, a book that describes how controversial science gains acceptance through a step-by-step process of refinement and persistence (9).

Other factors delayed quasicrystal acceptance.The unavailability of electron microscopes limited scientists recreations of of Shechtman's work; crystal scientists preferred x-rays (9). To accommodate these scientists, Shechtman grew a crystal large enough to be seen by an x-ray beam (9).

Shechtman's finally prevailed after his presentation at a crystallographers conference in 1987. Slowly, his colleagues accepted his findings. Linus Pauling continued to doubt Shechtman's work. However, this distrust was never at the personal level. The two often talked for hours about science, but they never agreed on the existence of the quasicrystal.(9)

Daniel Shechtman Today
Shechtman today
Shechtman today

Shechtman, 70, is a professor of materials science at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel where he holds the Philip Tobias Chair. He is also a professor at Iowa State University and a researcher at the United States Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.
Although the practical applications of quasicrystals are currently thought to be limited, he continues to study magnesium alloys and other materials that are strong but can also be stretched or otherwise manipulated without breaking. [10]

At Technion-Israle Institute, he leads a research group focused on the Icosahedral Phase, the first structure in the field of quasi-crystals. The group is studying the crystallography and properties of the icosahedral phase in several alloy systems. They are also researching structural defects in CVD diamond wafers and their effect on the wafer’s properties and growth. [16]

In 2004, Shechtman, who goes by “Danny,” joined the faculty of Iowa State in Ames, Iowa. He currently spends four to five months a year teaching and conducting research at the school as part of a part-time appointment. He is expected to return to the school in mid-February.

He is married to Professor Zipora Shechtman, department head of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Haifa.

Shechtman has compared winning the Nobel Prize to carrying his country’s flag at the Olympics. When asked about the impact the prize will have on his life, Shechtman said he would return to teach at the Technion. “Life will return relatively quickly to normal I imagine," he said. [15]

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