JERUSALEM – Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of a new form of crystal whose patterns and configuration defied previously held laws of nature and altered chemists’ understanding of solid matter.
His 1982 discovery of what would become known as quasicrystals provoked controversy in his field, demonstrating atoms in some crystals were packed in patterns that could not be repeated, which was once thought impossible.
“His discovery was extremely controversial,” the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted in announcing the prize. “In the course of defending his findings, he was asked to leave his research group. However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.”
Since Shechtman’s discovery, scientists have discovered naturally occurring quasicrystals in minerals found in a Russian river and a certain form of steel. They have also been produced in labs. Scientists are searching for practical applications in everything from diesel engines to frying pans.
In an interview, Shechtman recounted the moment when he realized that the atomic structure in the chilled molten metal he was studying with an electron microscope manifested as a pattern of dots that didn’t fit with the laws of nature as scientists understood them.
“This was not allowed by the theory. It couldn’t be,” Shechtman said. “So this was the beginning of a new science.”
Shechtman studied and still teaches at Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He has also worked at Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.